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Bebop or bop is a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos and improvisation based on harmonic structure rather than melody. It was developed in the early and mid-1940s. Hard bop later developed from bebop combined with blues and gospel music.



Many bebop tunes were based on the chord progressions (also called chord changes) from popular songs. (The technical term for such tunes is contrafacts or contrafactions.) A (slightly shortened) version of the chord changes to the song "I Got Rhythm" by George Gershwin was so often used that they are often referred to simply as "Rhythm changes." Contrafaction was already a well-established practice in earlier jazz, but came to be central to the bebop style. In part this was because the extremely fast tempos favored by boppers often did not suit the original melody, and because they often further altered the original chords or even combined chords from two different tunes. In part the use of contrafacts had a practical purpose: small record labels like Savoy, which documented the early bebop movement, often wished to avoid paying copyright fees for pop tunes.

Bebop composers and improvisers, particularly Charlie Parker, stylistically employed frequent use of upper chord tones, i.e., ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, creating a more colorful and rich harmonic sound than past jazz styles. As the bebop language developed, these "altered chords" were used less for coloration than as fundamental building blocks of new harmonic spaces. The soloist's implied switch from an original to a reconstructed space created a narrative of liberation.

With the emergence of hard bop and modal jazz in the late 1950s and early 1960s, each altered chord was seen to imply a scale or mode (Gioia 299). The capacity to improvise over a complex sequence of altered chords using only the implied scales requires a mental agility of a mathematical, problem-solving kind that is another hallmark of bebop. These techniques have moved from the avant-garde to become part of the mainstream language of jazz, a language jazz musicians master as a rite of passage.

Bebop was also heavily characterized by the flatted fifth. The flattened fifth, one of the two strong dissonances on the diatonic scale, was a relatively new addition to popular music at the time. Although it had occasionally been used for passing chords or special harmonic effects in the 20s or 30s, and is an intrinsic member of the "blues" scale derived from African music (Gioia 9), the feature had never played an integral role in the foundation of a style to the extent it does in bebop. After roughly a decade, the flattened fifth would become a blue note just as common as the undetermined thirds and sevenths in traditional blues (Brendt 15).

This is related to the harmonic technique of tritone substitution. Here, the familiar series of perfect cadences is replaced by chromatic motion of the root. Thus, the standard "IIm7 - V7 - I" sequence, a building block of the 20th century popular song, is reconstructed as "IIm7 - ♭II7 - I". A bebop musician like Thelonious Monk, confronted with a chord marked as G7 (G dominant seventh) resolving to C, would often replace it with D♭7 (D♭ dominant seventh).

Bebop differed drastically from the highly organized compositions and “solid, yet springing 4/4 propulsion” of the swing era, and was instead characterized by fast tempos, complex harmonies, intricate melodies, and rhythm sections that laid down a steady beat only on the bass and the drummer’s ride cymbal (Rosenthal 12). The music itself was jarringly different to the ears of the public, who were used to the bouncy, organized, danceable tunes of those like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller during the swing era. Instead, bebop appeared to sound racing, nervous, and often fragmented. Everything was condensed, and no notes except the absolutely necessary were added. As one bop musician said, “everything that is obvious is excluded” (Gitler 16), which often amounted in the music going above the heads of listeners. The style was also highly dependent on improvisations, which even include non-traditional solo instruments such as the drums. In the playing, a theme would be presented in unison at the beginning and the end of each piece, with improvisational solos making up the body of the work.

The classic bebop combo consisted of saxophone, trumpet, bass, drums, and piano. This was a format used (and popularized) by both Charlie Parker (alto sax) and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet) in their 1940s groups and recordings, sometimes augmented by an extra saxophonist or guitar.

Later codifications of bebop harmony emerged, notably in the teachings of pianist/educator Barry Harris, who encouraged players to learn "bebop scales" for improvising such as the Bebop Minor (I-II-♭III-III-IV-V-VI-♭VII), the Bebop Dominant (I-II-III-IV-V-VI-♭VII-VII), and the Bebop Half-Diminished (I-♭II-♭III-IV-♭V-♭VI-♭VII). A feature of these scales is that when they are played in 8ths, up or down, players automatically play a tone featured in the corresponding chord on every 4/4 beat.


The name bebop (also called rebop) is an onomatopoetic imitation of a characteristic quick two-note phrase that was played together by the lead instruments to introduce a solo or end a song. It is also the name of one of the first jazz pieces tending from Swing toward Bebop by Dizzy Gillespie.


  • Berendt, Joachim E. The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond. Trans. Bredigkeit, H. and B. with Dan Morgenstern. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1975.
  • Deveaux, Scott.. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Gitler, Ira. Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition of Jazz in the 1940s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Rosenthal, David. Hard bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965. New York : Oxford University Press, 1992.


Bebop musicians

Notable musicians identified with bebop:

Julian Adderley, alto sax
Clifford Brown, trumpet
Ray Brown, bass
Don Byas, tenor sax
Charlie Christian, guitar
Kenny Clarke, drums
Tadd Dameron, piano
Miles Davis, trumpet
Kenny Dorham, trumpet
Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet
Dexter Gordon, tenor sax
Wardell Gray, saxophone
Al Haig, piano
Barry Harris, piano
J.J. Johnson, trombone
Duke Jordan, piano
Stan Levey, drums
John Lewis, piano
Charles Mingus, bass
Thelonious Monk, piano
Fats Navarro, trumpet
Charlie Parker, alto sax
Sonny Rollins, tenor sax
Sonny Stitt, tenor and alto sax
Oscar Pettiford, bass
Tommy Potter, bass
Bud Powell, piano
Max Roach, drums
Red Rodney, trumpet
Lucky Thompson, tenor sax
George Wallington, piano

Jazz | Jazz genres
Acid jazz - Asian American jazz - Avant-garde jazz - Bebop - Dixieland - Calypso jazz - Chamber jazz - Cool jazz - Creative jazz - Free jazz - Gypsy jazz - Hard bop
Jazz blues - Jazz fusion - Jazz rap - Latin jazz - Mini-jazz - Modal jazz - M-Base - Nu jazz - Smooth jazz - Soul jazz - Swing - Trad jazz - West coast jazz
Other topics
Jazz standard - Jazz royalty

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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