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Jazz Improv: How to Play It and Teach It



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How To Improvise


This is one is a series of free music theory lessons. To subscribe, please click here.

This lessons is primarily designed for keyboard players. But if you are a guitarist you can still benefit. Try working with a friend who plays the chords while you improvise the melody. Or play along with the midi file provided. If you play a melody instrument like the violin, flute, sax, etc., you can do the same; that is, focus on improvising the melody following the guidelines in this lesson. If you are a beginning guitar player, you may want to play simple chords rather than 7th chords. The progression will will work with simple triads (3 note chords). For example, instead of plaing Fmaj7, just play an F chord.

In a previous lessons, we established a basic chord progression used by Jazz musicans for improvisation. I refer to call this progression as the Down a Fifth. Others also refer to it as the Major Cycle. If you haven't gone through the previous lesson yet, please do so before continuing by clicking here

Here is the progression you learned last time, in the key of C (note: the treble clef is deliberately left blank here.):

I've added an extra measure at the end so we have an 8-bar structure since musical sections are often made up of an even number of measures. Notice that when repeating the I7 chord in measure 8, I've changed the arrangement of tones. (This is called a different "chord inversion" -- specifically a second inversion. ) This inversion give variety and also makes it easier to move to the IV7 chord if we repeat these 8 measures. If you don't know much about chord inversions, don't worry about that now. I'll discuss chord inversions in another lesson. I'm showing the letter names of the chords in this example. To keep things simple, I'm not indicating the bass note for each chord since this arrangement is mainly for a keyboard instrument. My assumption that the bass part is being played by another instrument. Notice in measure 8 that there is dash -- this shows that the previous chord is being repeated.

The chord in the second measure is a seventh chord built on VII (the seventh degree of the scale). This chord normally has a minor third and lowered fifth. That's why you see b5 in the chord designation. Sometimes this will appear as -5 instead of b5. (flat 5).

Notice that in this style, every chord is a 7th chord. I am, of course, not recommending that 7th chords always be used this way. This is just one particular chord progression that you can use for improvisation practice. These chords are to be played by the left hand only, freeing the right hand to improvise a melody.Now, let's the next step is to add melodies above these chords.

Exercise 1: Half-notes. As a first exercise add a melody that only uses half-notes, except for measure 8. In measure 8 use a whole note to end the musical phrase. Here are 9 guidelines that will help you do this:

  1. Let your melody go somewhere. Don't just stick with a limited range of notes. Give your melody a "mountain range like quality." Try for a range of at least an octave between the highest and lowest notes.
  2 .Favor a note that belongs to the chord as the first note in each measure. Especially good is the 7th or the 3rd of the chord.
  3. If you land on a note that is one step above a chord tone, let the melody drop down to the chord tone on the next note. If you hand on a tone that is a half-step below a chord tone, let the tone resolve upward when you play the next note.
  4. Use mostly scalewise motion with occasional skips to add interest. (A skip is an interval greater than a second.)
  5. When using a skip, usually jump to another chord tone. If you land on a tone directly above or below a chord tone, let the non-chord tone move immediately to a chord tone. When I say "chord tone," here, I am talking about a tone that belongs to a 7th chord. So the tone could be the root, third, fifth, or seventh of the chord.
  6. After a large skip (say greater than a 4th) consider scalewise movement in the opposite direction. It takes extra energy to make those skips and the natural tendency is to compensate by moving gently in the opposite direction.
  7. On the first beat of the measure, generally avoid notes a half-step away from a chord tone. For example, if the chord is C, avoid F since the F is a half-step above E. These notes are sometimes called "avoid notes;" they are especially dissonant and often sound wrong. (On the flip side, if handled well, these "avoid notes" can be especially effective; remember, there is an exception to most every rule.)
  8. If you play a note that sounds wrong, stop and analyze it in relation to the chord you are playing. Is it an avoid note? A non-chord tone? Next time, consider avoiding that note when playing that chord.

9. Practice improvising in different ways. Sometimes, play very slowly and try to hear some tones in your mind before you play them. Then seek out those notes. Ear training and sight singing with syllables or numbers can help you hear tones in your mind. Consider working with an ear training program to tune your ears.

Sometimes when you play, decide that you will be very much aware of the syllable name (or number) of each tone within the scale (not the letter-name of the tone. For example, if you start with the a' in the key of C, you would think la or 6. That's because the note a' is the sixth degree (scale step) in the key of C. And la is the 6th syllable in the scale: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.)

This is a difficult concept at first if you are not used to it, but it is very important. Notes are not just notes with letter names, but they are specific scale steps -- numbered tones within the key. For example, no matter what key you are in, la (scale step 6) has a similar quality even though it will usually have a different letter name in a different key.

Sing over chords. Another good way to hear tones in your mind is to play a chord and try to imagine musical tones and and then sing them. The chord will stimulate your musical imagination. This is an advantage that guitar players have because they focus so much on playing chords. Sometimes just sing words or "lu," but sometimes practice singing the correct solfegge syllables. If you play another instrument, consider also learning the guitar; it will improve your musical ear. A software program called the Guitar Coach makes it easy to get started with the guitar..(If you live near Roseville, CA you can take private guitar lessons from me.)

Sometimes, forget about thinking so much and just play. Let the music speak to you. (Let your "right brain" be in control.)

Here is a example of what you might do carrying out exercise #1. Remember this is just an example and your efforts may be quite different. (This time I am leaving out the letter names for the chords.)

Listen to half-note improvisation example with MIDI (NOTE: You can rightclick to download this MIDI file)

Progress check. Let's use our left brain now. Are most notes chord tones? Find all the non-chord tones in this example. How are they handled? Find an example of a large skip. What happens after the large skip?

- - - - - - - - -

Most of the notes are chord tones. A chord tone is usually a safe bet when picking a melody note. A nonchord tone appears as the second note in measure 2. Notice how a chord tone comes before and after this nonchord tone. This nonchord tone is called a passing tone because it passes between two chord tones.

The first note of measure 4 is also a nonchord tone. The note d" does not belong to the Ami7 chord. But notice that it is preceded by and followed by a chord tone, making it a passing tone. You may have noticed that we didn't follow the guideline about making the first note of the measue a chord tone. I think it still sounds good, though, and that's more important than following the guideline rigidly.

In measure 3 we have a skip of a major 6th (from g' to e"). After this large skip, notice how the melody steps down twice in the opposite direction.

When improvising, you don't have time to analyze each tone like this, but analysis after the fact will still help you develop an instinct that will serve you well when improvising.

Exercise 2. After improvising several melodies using only half notes in the melody, memorize one of the melodies and write it down. Improvise in your "key of the week." (If you're not sure what that is, please review my lesson on how to practice. )

Exercise 3. Improvise using quarter notes in the melody for measures 1 thru 6. In measure 7 use half-notes. In measure 8 use a whole note. Use only whole notes in the left hand. (Rational: since we are just learning to improvise we want to keep things very simple rhythmically at first and gradually build up our skill. By using only whole notes in the left hand we have time to focus on the improvisation we are doing with the right hand. By slowing down to half-notes in measure 7 and then to a whole note in measure 8, we let the melody some to a graceful conclusion.)

Here's an example of something you might do:

Listen to quarter note improvisation example. (NOTE: You can rightclick to download this MIDI file)

Progress Check.

1. Another term for a nonchord tone is a nonharmonic tone. Find all the nonharmonic tones in this example. Is any of these an avoid note? (Recall that an avoid note is a nonharmonic tone that is a half-step away from a chord tone.) If you find an avoid note, explain how it is handled.

2. Are any large leaps (skips) used in this example. If so, what happens afterwards?

3. Is the first beat of every measure usually a chord tone or nonharmonic tone?

4. What is the range of the melody. (Distance from lowest to highest note)

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Click here to check your answers (a new window will open)

Exercise 3. Memorize one of your quarter note improvisations and write it down. Transpose it into as many different keys as possible.

This finishes this lesson. Next time we will continue to elaborate on this Down a Fifth progression. Please send me a note letting me know how you liked this lesson. Also write if you have questions. Click here to write me a note. Also please visit my music theory webboard.

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Sheet Music. If you are looking for sheet music, songbooks or guitar tabs? Try Sheet Music Plus. They have over a quarter million titles to choose from, and you can order online.

When you feel you've mastered the basics of this lesson, you may want to learn more! Continue with the next lesson in this series. Improvising music, Part 3.