• Taking Your Playing Outside: Basics to Side-Stepping

    in Experienced players,Improvisation,Jazz music,Piano

    side-stepping image

    We introduced “playing outside” in a previous post on bitonality. In this post, we are taking our playing outside again using another concept: side-stepping.

    Playing outside literally means leaving the key center deliberately. Before we go ahead, let’s discuss what inside vs outside mean as it relates to music.

    Playing Inside vs Playing Outside

    In music, a combination of notes will yield two outcomes – consonance or dissonance.

    Traditionally, consonance was seen as the inside because of its universal stability while dissonance (which is termed inharmonious, unpleasant, etc.) was seen as the outside, having the tendency to resolve to consonance (inside), and used sparingly.

    The harmonic movement from discord to concord is likened to moving from the outside (unpleasant) to the inside (pleasant). With the evolution of music over time, things are different now. Dissonance has gained a common place in music and in contemporary times, there are new perspectives to playing outside because both consonance and dissonance are now considered as inside.

    Pursuant to the marriage between consonance and dissonance, another level of outside playing evolved that had to do with side-stepping deliberately from the prevalent key center to another. Side-stepping had more to do with contrasting a tonality (or key) by contradicting it. Side-stepping features a higher level of dissonance than pre-existing sources of dissonance.

    If you’ve ever longed for melodic or harmonic adventure into the unusual, then you need to consider stepping aside from the prevalent tonality or key. Let’s take it outside.

    Side-Stepping Explored

    Side-stepping is close to trespassing in the real world. Side-stepping literally means stepping out of the prevalent key (inside) into a foreign key (outside).

    Side-stepping must be done deliberately. The use of the term “side” suggests stepping into a foreign key that is adjacent to the prevalent key. For example, using C major as key, side-stepping should be to adjacent keys.

    Adjacent keysWhole tone

    Notes that are adjacent to C by a whole tone progression (whole step) are B and D.

    B♭ is a whole tone below C while D is a whole tone above C. Let’s compare the major scales of these adjacent keys.

    C and D (C D E F G A B) vs (D E F G A B C♯)

    Comparing these adjacent keys shows they share 5 notes in common: G A B D E (that’s G major pentatonic if you choose to perceive it my way).

    Side-stepping into D yields 2 tones outside (F♯ and C♯) and 5 tones inside (G A B D E). Therefore, side-stepping into D won’t really take us outside.

    C and B(C D E F G A B) vs (B C D E F G A)

    B♭ and C also share 5 notes in common: F G A C D (that’s F major pentatonic if you choose to perceive it my way).

    Side-stepping into B yields 2 tones outside and 5 tones inside. Side-stepping into D yields 2 tones outside (B♭ and E♭) and 5 tones inside (F G A C D). Considering that there’s a higher degree of inside (5 tones) than outside (2 tone) if we side-step into B, we’ll still be inside.

    Adjacent keysSemitone

    D and B are adjacent to C by a semitone progression (or half step).. B is a semitone below C while D♭ is a semitone above C. Let’s compare the major scales of these adjacent keys.

    C and D♭ – (C D E F G A B) vs (D E F G A B C)

    Comparing these adjacent keys shows they share only 2 notes in common – F and C. Considering that there are 5 foreign notes – G♭ A♭ B♭ D♭ E♭ (that’s G♭ major pentatonic as far as I’m concerned):

    …side-stepping into Db yields 5 tones outside (G♭ A♭ B♭ D♭ E♭) and 2 tones inside (F and C), resulting in taking your playing outside each time you side-step into D♭.


    C and B (C D E F G A B) vs (B C D E F G A B♯)

    C and B share 2 notes in common: E and B. The foreign notes to C major are F G A C D (that’s also F major pentatonic).

    Side-stepping into B yields 5 tones outside (F G A C D) and 2 tones inside (E and B).

    I hope you noticed that the outside notes resulting from side-stepping in both cases are the SAME (just spelled differently). One is G and the other is F♯ major pentatonic. Both are enharmonic scales and sound the same.

    For side-stepping to be effective, the ratio of notes that are outside must be higher than those that are inside. This establishes that you have stepped out of the prevalent key. If we side step to keys that have a higher degree of inside than outside notes, the 5 notes that are inside will make the 2 notes that are outside sound like poor choices (remember that there are no avoid notes, just poor choices). Therefore, it’s more effective to side-step into keys that are a semitone below or above the prevalent key.

    Final Words

    In the next post, I’ll show you melodic and harmonic approaches to side-stepping and most importantly, how to resolve. Remember that if you don’t resolve properly, people will think you were busy playing a string of ‘wrong’ notes vs your goal of being intentional and deliberate.

    Until next time.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

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




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    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Kwatei

    God bless you man of God a blessing to my life .

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    2 Kwatei

    You are blessing to my life. I’m so grateful.

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