• Melodic and Harmonic Approaches to Side-Stepping and Resolving

    in Experienced players,Improvisation,Jazz music,Piano,Scales

    side-stepping image

    Having introduced you to side-stepping in a previous post, it’s time to take it a step further by showing you harmonic and melodic perspectives to side-stepping and (most importantly) resolving.

    Side-stepping and resolving are similar to the idea of trespassing. One may trespass but the object is to eventually get back to public and safe land. In the same way, we’ll be discussing side-stepping (playing outside) and resolving (getting back inside).

    Melodic Approach to Side Stepping and Resolving

    Welcome back to our adventure in outside playing.

    In terms of side-stepping melodically, we can side-step licks, runs, patterns and all other melodic materials. However, all licks, runs, patterns, etc. are usually rooted in an underlying scale. That is to say that we’ll be covering side-stepping using scales, but feel free to use all the runs and licks you can create from the scale based on ideas we’ll cover in this article.

    #1 – Dorian mode

    It is important for me to say that even though side-stepping proves useful in various situations, it is more effective in modal tunes. In modal tunes, one mode is used and explored, unlike tonal tunes were a whole lot of stuff happens.

    One of the commonly used modes is the dorian mode. The dorian mode is associated with the second tone of the scale and in a previous lessons, we classified the dorian mode as a minor scale. Below is the dorian mode from D to D:

    Using tertian harmony, we can create chords by stacking notes together in thirds. The first three notes will form a D minor triad:

    Adding another third above the triad will yield a D minor 7 chord:

    In terms of compatibility, the Dmin7 and D dorian work very well together:

    From the illustration above, the compatibility is clear – 57% of the notes of the dorian mode are chord tones. D, F, A and C are all present in both the underlying scale and the chord.

    It’s cool to knock yourself out (if you can) with licks, runs, phrases (and what have you) in the dorian mode, but remember that everyone will do the same. Now, let me ask you a question: “Do you want to sound different?”

    If your answer is “yes” and you’re honest about it, then I’ll strongly recommend that you fasten your seat belt because we are about to side-step.


    We’ll be side-stepping into C or E♭. If you want to know why, you should see the previous post on Basics to Side-Stepping.

    Side-stepping means stepping outside the prevalent mode to another mode whose root is adjacent to the prevalent mode. You have two adjacent modes you can side-step into:

    C Dorian

    E Dorian

    I’m sure you can’t wait to see where this is headed! That’s the idea… we’ve stepped out… we are outside. Here’s what it looks like:

    In each of the cases above, we have a higher degree of outside notes (something close to 71%) and a lower degree of inside notes (29%).

    Option #1 – Side-Stepping into C

    In this option, we have 5 notes outside (pretty much the pentatonic scale – C#, D#, F#, G#, A#). It can be any of the 5 modes of the Fpentatonic scale and this largely depends on the way it is arranged. Below is F pentatonic over Dmin7, which is pretty much a collection of all the outside notes.

    With this, we can stay focused on the outside by just playing the F pentatonic scale above Dmin7. Trying this out a couple of times may not sound agreeable but that’s the idea. We aren’t side-stepping to sound agreeable; we are side-stepping to go outside the box of tonality. Now that we’ve seen the notes that are outside, it’s time to see the notes that are inside.

    There’s just E and B inside and that’s an impressively low degree of inside notes (only 29%) we have there.

    Option #2 – Side-stepping into E

    Similar to option #1, there are 5 outside notes in this scale (another pentatonic scale – Eb, Gb, Ab, Bb, Db). It can be any of the 5 modes of the G♭ pentatonic scale depending on the way it is arranged. Playing G♭ pentatonic scale over Dmin7, will superimpose an aggregate of outside notes.

    With G♭ pentatonic, you’re good with ALL outside notes and this leaves you with two inside notes:

    There’s just F and C (29% of inside).

    Option #3 – Side-stepping into C and E♭ combined

    Just in case it escaped your notice, side-stepping into C and E will yield outside notes that sound alike (because they are enharmonic equivalents). The G pentatonic scale (an aggregate of the outside pitches in E dorian):

    …sounds exactly the same as F pentatonic scale (an aggregate of the outside pitches in C dorian):

    Therefore, we’re combining options #1 and #2 to create this third option.

    Considering that outside notes sound the same (even though they are spelled differently), we can focus more on the inside notes of both scales. Eb dorian shares the following notes with D dorian mode:

    …while C dorian shares the following notes with D dorian mode:

    In this third option, we have four notes from the combination of F-C (from D dorian mode) and E-B (from C dorian).


    Someone is probably asking, “What are we doing with four inside notes when the goal of this post is side-stepping?” And the answer is “After side-stepping, endeavor to resolve”. After side-stepping, if you don’t resolve properly, you’re no different from someone who just modulated to a new key, with no intentions of returning back to the original key.

    Side-Stepping – Resolving

    After side-stepping, it is necessary to resolve. Resolution takes you back to where you side-stepped from.

    You can use melodic resolution by going down or up a half step from outside to inside (it’s entirely up to you) . A better way to resolve is to focus on the common notes between the inside dorian and outside dorian modes. E and B are in C dorian (outside) and D dorian mode (inside):

    Resolving to these notes can be very effective because they are inside and outside. Side-stepping from these notes are also effective. There’s F and C in E dorian (outside) and D dorian mode (inside):

    Resolving to these notes can be very effective because they are inside and outside. Side-stepping from these notes are also effective. It is also important to note that these two notes (F and C) are the third and seventh of Dmin7 (the prevalent dorian mode).

    Harmonic Approach to Side-Stepping

    Side-stepping can also be used in harmonic situations. Similar to what we did in the melodic approach, we can side-step into adjacent chords of the same quality (major, minor, dominant, etc.) that are a semitone (half step) lower or higher than the prevalent harmony. For example, if the prevalent harmony is Dmin7:

    You can side step into Cmin7:

    Or Emin7:

    Side-stepping from Dmin7 to Emin7 practically sounds like modulationchange of key. But the beautiful thing about side-stepping is that upon resolution, outside notes will function as chromatic anticipations of the inside notes.

    Final Words

    I’m sure you’ve learned something today.

    You can use the melodic approach to make your runs, licks, etc. sound abstract by side-stepping.

    You can use the harmonic approach to create chromatic anticipations. You can make a boring chord sound exciting by side-stepping and resolving.

    Do you want to play outside? What are you waiting for? Go ahead and raise that chord a half step higher. Go ahead and play that run or lick a semitone lower than the prevalent harmony. However, you could risk sounding like you’ve modulated if you don’t resolve effectively and on time.

    Until next time!

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku (aka - "Dr. Pokey") is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.


    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 zino



    2 Joe

    Nice one. But… You didn’t show how to resolve harmonically, you only covered resolving melodically.


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