Tonal improvisation: the absolute basics.
There's a lot about improvisation out there; this is meant to supplement, not to supplant. It's highly possible that others have said things very close to what I say; my apologies, if you are not credited.
Many books on improvisation are geared toward a certain instrument, as if improvising on trumpet were somehow different than improvising on clarinet. Playing trumpet and playing clarinet are very different beasts, to be sure. Both, however, are still working with the same musical ingredients when improvising. In the same way you can play "Happy Birthday" on any instrument, the same way you can play a melody by Bach on any instrument, a hip-hop tune, a bluegrass tune, and so on, you can improvise tonally or freely on any instrument. The basics of playing those tunes do not change. Improvising tonally follows the same "rules" regardless of instrument. What changes from instrument to instrument is how to create certain stylistic elements. For example, sliding is common to blues music. On piano you can't really slide, so there are ways to fake it or get a similar effect. That's where a book specifically about improvising blues on the piano might come in handy. What I am writing here is applicable to all definite-pitch instruments, be it voice, trumpet, clarinet, uillean pipes, or erhu.
Let's start with defining what I mean by improvising tonally. Tonal music has a sense of key center, which means some note or harmony (i.e., a chord) provides a sense of arrival or home — a starting point that one returns to before venturing off again. One can argue that certain types of Western folk or rock music is not tonal in its strictest sense. And I agree — not in the strictest sense. We're not going to be that strict here. What I say should apply as nicely to Mozart as it does to the Monkees. The improvising part means that you are going to make up melodies that make sense musically over the harmonies of your song of choice, as opposed to free improvisation where the rules are far looser or simply based on a completely different set of aesthetic values from tonal music. (Free improvisation is a fantastic way to just get yourself going).
If you are completely lost at this point, let me oversimplify, with all due respect: tonal = songs. We are talking about making up new melodies to existing songs. If you're looking for ideas on how to do that, you're in the right place.
The two types of music making (of many!) in the present day most associated with improvisation are jazz and blues, which are closely related. In fact, many jazz improvisation primers start with a blues song (as does my own). You learn the melody, you memorize what the most common blues chord progression is, you memorize the notes of the blues scale, and you're good to go!
But you might find that somehow, even though you've got those ingredients in your brain and in your fingers or voice, something is still missing. In my experience, that thing is what a friend of mine likes to call "rhythmic authority." Now, people will tell you, you need to have something to say, and you can't teach artistry, and you either got it or you don't, and so on. There is some validity to those perspectives, but I think they shut out people and improvisation is truly available to all. The ideas behind "rhythmic authority" will help you discover that you do indeed have something to say, and how you can figure out how to say it.
When I first started reading Darcy's ideas about rhythmic authority, I thought he simply meant being able to read and play complicated rhythms accurately. That's part of it, but not all of it, and not the beginning of it. Over the years I have heard many people go on and on about "feeling" the rhythm, as opposed to "counting" the rhythm. "No, you gotta feel it, man!" (Yes, those are the exact words.) I've found that students like hearing this, because to them "counting" means work and "feeling" does not. Music is supposed to be fun, right? And not work! So we are told.
Then some jerk like me comes along and tells students they are not playing the rhythm that's written on the page. The student gets angry, understandably; yet they have no way of knowing whether that's true or not. Many students end up knowing neither how to count nor feel rhythms and end up playing rhythms — and therefore melodies — inaccurately, and certainly lacking in "authority."
For me, "counting" is a great tool to learn to feel rhythms. Moving your body is another great tool: even if it's as simple as marching in place, tapping your foot, or swaying. Using words is another great tool (I actually think of "counting" as more of a linguistic device than a math device). The more of these tools you can use, the better you will get at feeling rhythm. Learning to use these tools is work! And worthy work, indeed. But what's so special about feeling rhythm? What does it really mean to feel the rhythm?
Rhythm operates on several levels simultaneously, from the beat, to sounds lasting more than one beat, to sounds lasting less than a beat, to groups of beats, to larger rhythmic groupings. As a musician, you have to be aware of and operate on all these different levels, too. At some point, you have to move on from needing to say "one and two and" or "ta ta ti-ti ta" or "du de du de du" or to tap your foot or sway back and forth in order to make sure you are playing the rhythm correctly. You have to know you are doing it correctly. You have to understand how these rhythms work together to create a whole musical phrase and how the phrases work together to make the whole song and make its musical message clear. This is hard enough to do for a song you can read or can play by ear. If you're making something up on the spot, you can't be counting to keep track, you just have to know. You have to have authority.
You can't get lost in all the details, as if you had to process every letter in order to read this. You've got to put those musical ingredients — pitches and durations, aka, notes and rhythms — into larger ideas. The idea of phrases in music is very similar to the idea of phrases in language. When you can put all the ingredients together to make phrases, and then make those phrases create songs, you've got authority.
This kind of knowing authority is not only intellectual but kinesthetic, too. It's so deeply rooted in the way our bodies work — we move in rhythms on the outside, but our insides move in rhythms, too — that we talk about "feeling" it. We sense rhythm in our body, whether it's our own body's rhythms or rhythms coming from outside our body. We feel it in both physical and emotional ways. But that doesn't mean that it's automatic or that there is no work involved in assimilating musical rhythm or that our other senses can't help us along in the process.
I started improvising as a teen, but as an adult I began to really pick apart what I could and could not do well and why. What I discovered about myself was that I have rhythmic authority when reading and I have rhythmic authority when composing, no problem. When improvising, however, things didn't fall into place. I was having trouble keeping track of the chords and the phrases, even in simple songs. Suddenly, the task of coming up with snazzy flute licks was insurmountable. I had to figure out a way to break it down into something simple that I could be successful at. When I did, I realized I had a rhythmic authority problem. By keeping things very simple — even simpler than the blues — I could put all the musical ingredients together in a way that made musical sense.
Working with just two chords and three pitches, for example, I realized my problem wasn't that I didn't understand the style or that I didn't know enough chords or scales. I was so caught up in trying to make something "amazing" and "flashy" and that sounded "right" that I failed to do all of it. I wasn't using the ingredients in a way that made musical sense — which involves rhythmic authority.
Let me put it another way. Here's another thing I've heard a lot over the years: When asked what it takes to improvise, people say, "Well, you gotta know your chords and scales." This is not the whole story! Not by a long shot. People hear this answer and dive into memorizing scales and chords. Just because you know the alphabet, doesn't mean you speak all the languages that use that alphabet. Even if you memorize all the words in the dictionary, that doesn't mean that you understand the language. You have to understand how these things work together to build meaning.
You also have people, like myself, who have studied classical music for years. Of course we know our chords and scales! But not in the same way that a person with jazz training has. The flip answer of "know your chords and scales" leaves out a large chunk of what the actual knowing is. I suspect many classical folks hear the answer, think about how much time and energy they put into their chords and scales, think about how they still don't get how to improvise, and conclude they just don't have what it takes. All the materials are there, except for how to work with them towards understanding. It's like telling someone, well in order to cook you need food and a kitchen. There's a missing link there!
Of course it's important to know your scales and chords, regardless of the style. But what does "know" really mean? Most books simply give you patterns and then tell you to make up your own. It's not horrible advice, but it's incomplete. The important thing is not that the mixolydian scale pairs nicely with the dominant 7th chord; the important thing is that those things have a context. You'll have to do some work with it out of context to get things under your fingers and in your ear, but the real work is understanding what happens to those ingredients in different contexts. That understanding has to be more than just plug in the right notes at the right time.
The blues scale is the least important thing you need to know in order to play the blues. Can you make a musical phrase with one note? Does that phrase sound like a question or an answer? Or is it a dependent clause that needs the next phrase in order to get its whole meaning across? Can you make sure that your phrase ends in time for you to start the next phrase? How do you know where to end the phrases? These are the kinds of questions you need to be able to answer in order to improvise successfully.
The approach that most books seem to take is memorize lots of ingredients, plug them into the right places, and maybe the rest — phrasing, style, articulation, creativity — will fall into place. Just keep plugging away at those ii-V7-I patterns and substitutions and maybe it'll sink in. Can't we have a better guarantee of comprehension? It seems to make more sense to me to start with fewer ingredients and go for the phrasing, style, timbre, articulation, and creativity first. Otherwise, you've got a dictionary but no real communication skills.
In grad school, colleagues would come to me and ask for help with German in order to pass the language exam. "But," they'd say, "I don't want to work on grammar." This always struck me as odd. Having a large vocabulary is great, but if you don't understand the grammar — the structure and syntax, which create a context for the vocabulary — how are you going to tell the difference between "Dem Lehrer hat der Schüler das Buch gegeben" (Lehrer = teacher, Schüler = student, Buch = book; but the translation is "The student gave the teacher the book") and "Der Lehrer hat dem Schüler das Buch gegeben" ("The teacher gave the student the book")? Each language uses different ways of expressing who is doing something and who is affected by that action, when the action is happening, and how it is happening. You can know the words "teacher," "student," "gave," and "book," but if you can't put them together properly, if you don't recognize that German doesn't depend on word order to convey meaning as much as English does, you can't communicate.
Having lots of scales and chords under your fingers is useless if you don't know how to put them together. In classical music, we learn roughly how to put them together mainly from reading lots of music; then we might analyze it, then we might get the grammar, and then we might be able to put the same things together ourselves. In jazz, we learn lots of tunes, but start trying to put things together in an original fashion much earlier, which is why, I think, a lot of jazz people get a real comprehension of their grammar sooner than classical people get theirs. Yet, I've heard enough jazz students (and been that kind of student myself) who just plug — n — play and hope things turn out okay; we have the vocabulary, but we don't really know the grammar.
Thinking again about the example I gave above, where we learned from a book that, say, the mixolydian scale pairs nicely with the dominant 7th chord, we need to also have an idea of what context that dominant 7th chord is in. In a basic blues song, every chord is a dominant 7th chord. In Euro-American folk and Classical musics, the dominant 7th chord only comes up in very specific situations; most chords are not dominant 7th chords. It matters less choosing what scale you use with that dominant 7th chord, than knowing how that chord functions in its phrase. In Renaissance music, those sonorities might have a yet different function and effect. Whatever pitches you choose, your improvisation has to reflect your understanding that in the first instance, you might be playing the very beginning of a phrase in a blues song; in the second instance you might be playing the very end of, say, a phrase with a half — cadence; and in the third instance that chord might just be a passing moment that doesn't carry any large-scale meaning. The meanings of the dominant chord in these situations are totally different and you can play a mixolydian scale over the chord, but if your phrasing and rhythm do not have some sort of authority, if you don't understand how those sounds function differently depending on the context, it's going to sound weird. It is just as uncomfortable as playing dissonant pitches, a.k.a. wrong notes, because of the same lack of understanding.
Much of the communication in music happens in terms of phrasing — and phrasing is the domain of rhythmic authority. If you strip away all the scales and chords you're supposed to remember and use during improvisation, you can focus on actually saying something within the given time frame, be it one, two, four, eight, thirty — two measures, or two hours. You can understand how a few ingredients create meaning within the style you're working in. When that sinks in, you can start adding a little more at a time.
Now "knowing" your scales and chords takes on a whole different meaning. How do we arrive at this sort of understanding? How do we learn the semantics of harmony? We have to have a way to understand how harmony and rhythm work together to create musical meaning, a context for the melody to convey its meaning.
Usually, when we talk about rhythm we are talking about either rhythms that make us aware of the beat and how the beats are grouped (e.g., "That song has a good beat! I like the rhythm…") or we're talking about small, specific rhythmic ideas (e.g., "That's a really hard rhythm to play."). These both come into play in terms of rhythmic authority, but there are two other aspects of rhythm that play larger roles: phrasing and harmonic rhythm.
Phrases are large-scale rhythms. We have small-scale rhythms that help us identify the beat or pulse underlying the music. We group those small-scale rhythms together to identify how those beats are grouped — not all beats have the same importance — which we call meter. Then we group the beat-groups into even larger units called phrases. We do this in seemingly natural way; in reality, it has more to do with experience and habit. Although music is not a language, they share much in common structurally, which is why we use so many of the same words to describe things in music, poetry, and prose. Phrases are musical statements, sentences, clauses.
Harmonic rhythm is the duration of the harmonies, or chords: not the rhythms we use to play them, but the duration that goes by while those chords are in effect. We might play a chord for eight beats and then switch to a different chord. A style like be-bop often uses a very fast harmonic rhythm; a harmony is in effect for two or even just one beat. Bach chorales, while not sung very fast, have a fast harmonic rhythm, with a new harmony on every beat. The harmonic rhythm helps give a phrase a certain kind of character. The phrases will feel differently, not only depending on what harmonies you use, but how quickly and at what point in the context of the phrase they change.
We are looking at a two-pronged approach that elaborates and clarifies approaches that already exist. In other words, I didn't come up with this; I'm synthesizing what's already out there. These various approaches just have never been spelled out or connected in a way that satisfies me. Often the books simply go too fast through the material, using complex examples, and the awareness of the connection between phrasing, harmonic rhythm, rhythmic authority and effective improvisation is lost. To be fair, many of the best books about improvisation are written for college-level music majors; the authors are assuming a certain set of experiences and understanding is a given. Unfortunately — and I don't mean this as an exercise in finger pointing, I am just saying this happens — people often get their degrees without having really understood and digested everything. This is perfectly normal! We can continue learning in and out of school and that is wonderful. It's my whole impetus for writing this. What I put forth here are ways to slow down and simplify the process so that it's digestible. This can be used in tandem with any other existing materials — exercises and pieces of music — that speak to you.
One is using subsets of scales, a la Kodaly: first subsets of the pentatonic, then the full pentatonic, then the pentatonic + ti, then the pentatonic + fa, then the whole diatonic scale. Here we are focusing on making simple melodic gestures and hearing how they fit over an existing simple progression. I like this because it's much less to memorize, you don't have to think in patterns, you don't have to repeat things, and you don't have to worry about being notey or clever. You do have to work on your rhythmic authority, but by keeping it simple, you'll be able to focus on that.
The other approach is the tried-and-true working with patterns. Patterns will help you hear and create melodies that work musically with the harmonies of the song. It's a lot of repetitive work and tends to separate the chaff from the wheat; some people will do the work and most won't. On the downside, this is the dominant way to present improvisation, and many fool themselves into thinking that this is all there is to it. They know the theory inside and out, but never think about the dramatic implications of the theory. Because a lot of jazz books are geared towards musicians who already have some playing experience, they often start with rather difficult patterns. They are great licks, to be sure, but are often a giant string of sixteenth notes that go all over the place. The idea behind it, I suspect, is that the writer wants you to have something that really captures the style, to give you something to aspire to. Well and good, but if you can't start there — you can't play it and you can't hear it in your head — it puts a real damper on the aspirations. Start simple, then string a bunch of simple stuff together and suddenly you've got something more complex. But start simple and focus on expression.
With both approaches:
• Start with styles you are familiar with.
By familiar with, you might only ever listen to that style, but never play it. That's okay. If it interests you, start learning how to play it, too.
Yet, let's be realistic here for a moment: There are abundant examples of two- and three-chord songs in rock, jazz, hip-hop, bluegrass, or Euro-American folk. It's definitely going to be harder in, say, heavy-metal, classical, or bossa-nova. Not impossible, but more challenging. If you can stand to set aside, say, your dislike for Country, tejano, or punk, you'll open yourself up to more chances to learn. A classical, a heav-metal, an R&B fan can learn a lot from any of these styles. You can also experiment with taking such songs and playing them in a style you like. People do this with "cover" tunes all the time (punk as bossa-nova, heavy-metal as lounge, prog rock as classical and so on…).
• Find the simplest songs harmonically in that style.
Start with two chords, tops. Then move to three, tops. Children's songs are a treasure trove (and many more sophisticated than you'd think) of two- and three-chord songs. Hundreds of rounds also only have two chords. After working with four different harmonies per song, you can move up to songs that use the whole diatonic range (seven possible chords). Then you can start looking at "borrowed" chords, i.e. secondary dominants and other colorful chords, but when you start that, I would still look for songs with a low amount of harmonies and a slow harmonic rhythm.
• Work with very few ingredients until you can hear in your mind's ear:
— how the whole phrase goes
— what harmonies and melodies happen and when
— what meanings and emotions it elicits for you
• And be able to improvise with full awareness of all of these things both with the music playing and all by yourself with no one else playing.
Working with very few ingredients enables you to hear how those things fit together with the harmony and its phrasing:
• How does this one pitch sound against these two different harmonies?
• Can I make a melody with just three pitches?
• What does it sound like when I just play the root of the chord in whole notes? Can I still imagine the original melody in my head while I'm doing that?
• Can I imagine the two chords in my head while I'm playing the original melody?
• How does it feel when the phrase ends with the tonic?
• How does it feel when the phrase ends with the dominant?
• How does it feel when the phrase starts with the dominant?
Becoming aware of these things takes time. If you are already an experienced musician, just not an experienced improviser, you probably are aware of many of these things while you play; you simply are going to work on being aware of these things while you create something new on the spot. If you are new to all of this, improvisation is a fantastic way to learn how music in the Euro-American and African-American traditions works.
Feel free also to push yourself forward into something that is too complicated for you and see what happens! Then return again to the simpler.
Improvising melodies with a small set of pitch materials.
The best thing about using limited pitch sets is that everything sounds harmonic. The worst thing is that it can quickly sound bland. You have to keep experimenting with articulation, dynamics, timbre and rhythm to maintain interest. If you get bored, so does the listener.
As I mentioned above, the blues scale is often what people start with precisely because it sounds good and there are enough pitches to keep things mildly interesting just with notes. We're going to start even simpler for two reasons: one, to keep you from depending on the pitches to create interest; and two, because we can approach a wider variety of musical styles than just the blues.
We can draw on some other music pedagogy traditions for a choice of pitches. Based on a multitude of music pedagogy and perception research, Edwin Gordon has come up with a set of melodic patterns that people consistently recognize as indicating tonic and dominant chord functions. The book "Developing Musicianship through Improvisation" by Christopher Azzara and Richard Grunow (GIA Music Press) is based on Gordon's Music Learning Theory and you can find those patterns there.
The Gordon patterns are mostly chord based, which are great for, as he says, hearing the harmonies. The tiny issue I have with basing improvisation only on chordal patterns is that most melodies are stepwise, whereas most chords are not. If you are trying to make up new melodies, using chord patterns will not sound particularly melodic. Definitely check out the book and Gordon's writings. Definitely practice chord — based patterns. As a supplement and a way to work with melodic materials, I suggest taking a look at the Kodaly tradition, too.
Gordon criticizes Kodaly pedagogy for starting with melodic snippets like do-re-mi or la-so-mi (moveable "do") because they lack a sense of tonal harmony. What I like about beginning improvisation with do-re-mi for major songs and la-do-re-mi or la-so-mi for minor songs is that they are mostly stepwise, and therefore you can make melodies that sound like real melodies! The trick is you have to become aware of how each note fits against the harmonies. By simply diving in and improvising with these limited pitch sets, you'll gather that very information.
Here's where rhythmic authority comes in: You do have know where you are in the song. You do have to know when chords happen and when they switch to something else. The nice thing about using only two chords to start with is that it's either one harmony or the other! That makes it easier to hear.
If a whole song is too much for you to keep track of, no worries. Try a few simplifications:
• Just work on a phrase at a time.
• Just work on one measure (using both duple and triple meters; mixed if you're feeling sassy) of one chord and one measure of the other. There doesn't even have to be a song associated with it. Or two of one and two of the other, or four of one and four of the other. You'll find a length of time that enables you to say what you need to and to keep track of phrasing and harmony. Be aware of which chord is the tonic (home chord) and which is the dominant (away chord) and strive to make your improvisations reflect those sensibilities.
• Start off simply. Only do what you can while still being aware of everything else.
A good way to be extra simple is to "test drive" each note. Only play do. Listen for when it sounds good and when it seems to rub a little against the harmony. Then do the same for re. Each pitch will start to take on a character in relationship to the chord and to the other melodic pitches. They'll let you know what they "like" to do melodically and you can decide whether to give in to their whims or not.
I find it helps to think I'm on a reconnaissance mission and my job is to find out simply what things sound like. Gather information and don't try to make things into something they are not. Nothing has to be profound or flashy. Just let the sounds be and listen to them. You don't have to "say" anything; you just have to make sounds in the company of other sounds, real or imagined. Get comfortable with that first.
Then you can start playing with what to "say" or finding out what you like. You want to work towards making your simple melodies sound like they have a direction, as if going to the next chord is inevitable, or maybe as if this first phrase has a personality, but the next phrase has a different personality. You can certainly do this with lots of pitches, but work on doing it with very few pitches. With fewer pitches, you have to work with dynamics, timbre, and rhythm to get your ideas across. This is much better because you can say so much without worrying about whether your fingers are going to hit a wrong note. Then when you are ready to work on flashy stuff, you'll know how to do it with the dynamics, timbre, and rhythm ready to work for you, instead of sounding like a rapid — fire note — spewing — machine. Furthermore, you'll be able to improvise convincingly early on. You'll be able to use what you have instead of worrying about what you don't have.
Some people like to make up stories, pick an emotion, or create a scene in their heads for inspiration. If that's sounds helpful, go for it! Some people find that too touchy — feely. That's okay, too, but you've got to find a way to connect holistically to the music: not just the intellect, not just the soul, not just the fingers. Get all of it involved.
Some pitch sets to get you started. (more to come…)
For tonal major, using only tonic (I) and dominant (V) on scale degrees 1 (do) and 5 (so)
full diatonic major scale through the range of your instrument.
For a modal major using only tonic (I) and subdominant (IV):
+ low S, low L, and high d'
For modal majors using a subtonic dominant substitute, tonic (I) subtonic is (VII). This is common in many folk musics and in African-American musics and their many branches.
Here's where we run into nomenclature issues. We can think of this in various ways:
• fixed home note (tonic) using scale steps, where do = 1 and we modify the steps with flats and sharps.
• modally, in which the home note (tonic) is something other than do, for example mixolydian mode, in which the home note is so.
Let's elaborate on how you can work with patterns, from easy to difficult. Patterns are just melodic snippets. In practice and in real music, we take a melodic snippet and then we'll play it again just starting on a different note. Then we'll do it again! Not too difficult. One of the reasons we practice scales in the first place is because that simple, stepwise set of notes appears in music all the time. Much of the time, the new note we start the pattern on is the next note up or down in the scale. It makes sense to practice these kinds of patterns outside the context of a song, because then we can learn new songs faster, we can improvise new songs, we can compose new songs. Recycling happens all the time in music.
Where does one get patterns from? From music. From your head. Use both right from the beginning: use existing patterns from songs and books about practicing and jazz and classical and everything, and start making up your own right away. If you "make up" something that already exists, that's great! You've allied yourself with the greatest minds. Keep it simple: three or four notes, tops. Here is a list of patterns I gathered from various sources. There are plenty to keep you busy, but it's by no means exhaustive. They are indicated by scale degree number and the first two or three permutations. For example, 1231 2342 in C major would be CDEC DEFD EFGE FGAF and so on, up and down the scale.
Now here's where I go back and say one of the quotes I bashed earlier: you gotta know your scales and chords. This means, at the very least, even if you can't play them very well yet, you've got to know what notes they are without having to look them up every time. One of the nice things about practicing patterns is that they can help you remember your scales better. Another thing is that they can help you hear the chord progressions of the songs more clearly when you have no other music playing to back you up. Start with C major and go on from there. Let's look at the pattern 121. If I start with C major, then I would play C-D-C. If I then apply this pattern starting on each note of the scale, I would play:
C-D-C (121 or do-re-do, which we'll abbreviate as drd)
D-E-D (232 rmr)
E-F-E (343 mfm)
F-G-F (454 fsf)
G-A-G (565 sls)
A-B-A (676 ltl)
B-C'-B (787 td't)
Then you could continue up through the registers of your instrument or come back down. Some books will reverse the melodic direction of the pattern on the way down (e.g., 878 767), but I like to keep the same pattern coming down; I use the other pattern as a totally different pattern. As you get to know these patterns, of course you can string different ones together. Just playing the patterns straight up and down the scale will help get the scale and the pattern under your fingers. But we can apply these patterns in other ways to help us hear chord progressions and to provide ideas for making new melodies based on the songs you're working with.
Assuming here that you know all your major scales, let's look again at the pattern 121. If I start with C major, then I would play C — D — C, as we determined above. Instead of going up the scale, we are going to leap around by fourths. We always count intervals with the bottom pitch as number 1:
C D E F G A B
1 2 3 4
So F is four notes up from C. Now we are playing:
Then four notes up from F is:
F G A B
1 2 3 4
Our next step in the series is:
B C' D' E'
1 2 3 4
Instead of going up infinitely (theoretically that's possible, but all instruments have their limits), we can make it compact by leaping down a fifth after every leap up of a fourth (capitals indicate downward direction):
do fa TI mi LA re SO do
with the pattern applied:
drd fmf TdT mfm LTL rmr SLS drd
This example uses the circle of fourths diatonically, only using the notes of the given scale. We could also do it chromatically, and go around the entire circle of fourths. This happens often in classical and jazz and is worth working on for a better grasp.
These patterns can also be applied in the following ways to further aid your ability to hear chord progressions in your mind's ear:
Pick a song, follow the chord progressions, apply the pattern to:
• just the roots
• roots + thirds
• roots + thirds + fifths
• roots + thirds + fifths + oct/7th/other alterations
• write out the progression as a chorale with good voice leading, then do the patterns in that order, moving from bass up or soprano down in each chord.
Start off by playing the patterns evenly, i.e., all quarters, or all eighths, or even all whole notes. Then start making up new rhythms to the patterns. Try not to premeditate too much; go for spontaneity. If you find that you are not able to keep track of all the information, simplify. Go back to something easier. Remove some parameter.
Yet another way to apply these patterns is on the melody of the song:
Pick a song/etude/piece, follow the melody (this is a good way to learn to ornament, too), applying the pattern to each note in the melody, fitting it into the given rhythm (as best you can):
• chromatically (this will take some experimentation/planning/listening)
Working chromatically is going to depend on the pattern, the harmony, and the style. In other words, using a slew of half-steps might just sound crunchy, but in some instances it might sound cool. Test drive them. It is worth pulling a Kenny Werner and telling yourself, "this sounds great!" in the sense that you're keeping yourself open to possibilities. It is also worth saying, "ooo, that's not quite right!" and finding out what is quite right. You might want to apply a different scale (that is, a set of half and whole steps), instead of being either fully diatonic or fully chromatic.
You'll find that when you start getting into non-diatonic chord progressions, you will have to apply different "scales." If you have a D major chord in a C major piece, it will make perfect sense to apply a D major scale to your pattern. In C minor, however, you might be able to try something else like D-Eb-F#.
This is a work in progress that will grow slowly, but I was so excited about what I had already come up with, I put it up unfinished. Stay tuned…
Do check out some of my other ideas on improvisation:
• a jazz improvisation primer I made up for some sixth graders I was teaching back in 1997.
• a jazz improvisation primer based on notes from a jazz history class I took at The Boston Conservatory with Jeff Stout back in 2000.
• a free improvisation primer I made up just cuz back in 2003.
• a real basic primer on comping bass lines, geared towards folks who know their chords and scales already.
Also see the open instrumentation pieces I have on my composition page; most of those also contain opportunities to improvise that should be comfortable for those new to improvisation.
andrea at reloadsanear dot com