beginner's guide to improvisation



The great saxophonist Stan Getz has this to say about improvising: “I never have any trouble playing anything I can think of. The trouble is thinking of what to play.”

"Thinking of what to play" is the subject of this part of our jazz curriculum.

If you've done your homework from previous lessons, you have some idea of how a limited number of notes sound in some simple harmonic frameworks. You have (hopefully) been doing a lot of listening to jazz artists you admire and might want to emulate. You've been working on your time feel and becoming familiar with the sound of simple harmonic progressions. Now's the time to start putting some of these building blocks together to play some actual music (what a concept!).

So where DO improvised melodies come from? Ultimately, they emanate from the same place ALL music comes from - the imagination of the musician. In this case, that means YOU! You've already played some melodies in Part 1, but they were constrained by the guidelines we set up to make things simpler to begin with. To return to the crayon analogy, now we want to give you a choice of colors and a more expansive canvas to use, since jazz players get to make all kinds of choices about what to play when. But with great freedom comes great responsibility (and I'm not talking about politics). You can't just play ANYTHING, right? There's got to be some structure, so let's talk about some of the ways you might construct melodies.
A melody is a linear succession of musical tones that the listener perceives as a single entity. In its most literal sense, a melody is a combination of pitch and rhythm, and may also be considered the foreground in relation to the background accompaniment.

Melodies often consist of one or more musical phrases or motifs, and are usually repeated throughout a composition in various forms. Melodies may also be described by their shape, the intervals between pitches, whether they are conjunct (stepping) or disjunct (skipping), their inherent tension and release, continuity and coherence.
(Paraphrased from Wikipedia)

Here's a melody I think you know quite well:

PopGoesThe Weasel

If you're not so good at note reading yet, the tune is Pop Goes The Weasel in the key of C. (I've made use of this melody in an article that you might find interesting: Jazz Listening 101.) This little ditty contains all of the characteristics of a melody that I just enumerated. It has two 4-bar phrases that are very similar to one another. It has both stepping (bars 1, 3 and 5) and skipping (bars 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8), rhythmic coherence, tension (measure 7 "Pop!") and release (measure 8 "Goes the weasel."). Our ears surely recognize this tune as a single entity.

How am I supposed to take this intellectual description and learn to actually create melodies? - you may ask. Fortunately, the answer is simpler than you might imagine. Musicians have been teaching themselves all of these guidelines for centuries by listening to and learning from previously composed music. If you want to internalize "jazz melodies" you have to learn some jazz tunes! That's the most powerful tool you can use to "fill your creative well" with good material to draw upon as you learn how to compose on the fly (which is essentially what improvising IS).

There are a few other "tricks" you can use to start creating your own personal melodic vocabulary. Since melodies consist of conjunct and disjunct shapes, you can begin with those*. What are some conjunct shapes? Scales, or pieces of a scales, are a succession of step-wise tones. What are some disjunct shapes? Broken chords (arpeggios) are tones arranged as a series of skips. Jazz players spend so much time practicing these fundamental skills because we need to have fluent access to these musical materials when we improvise.
*These are just SOME examples - this description is by no means exhaustive.

Here's a list of some of the techniques we use to make melodies:
  1. Re-stating or embellishing the melody of the song we're improvising on.
  2. Using fragments of scales and chords (as described above).
  3. Inventing and repeating motifs created in the moment using #1 and #2.

Learning Tunes

Jazz improvising usually occurs as part of the performance of a particular pre-composed piece of music. (This is not always true, but this description will serve our purposes.) What might that piece be? It could be something from the standard jazz repertoire or what some call The Great American Songbook (by Berlin, Porter, Gershwin et al). It could be an original tune specifically written as a vehicle for improvising (by Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Corea, Coltrane, Metheny, Shorter et al). It could be almost anything, but most of the music you play will contain some common structural elements. These elements include:
  1. Form - How long is the composition? How is it divided into phrases or sections?
  2. Melody - The pre-composed "tune" you can (hopefully) sing and play.
  3. Harmony - The chords that "go with" the Melody.
  4. Style - The tradition, cultural origin(s), rhythm (groove) and tempo.
So far we've been concentrating exclusively on melody. As we've been saying, if you want to learn how to improvise, learning some repertoire is essential. But treating the melody as an isolated component of a composition is quite difficult. All of the aspects of the piece work together to create a coherent musical experience. And, as it turns out, it's much easier to internalize a melody in the context of the entire composition rather than as a separate chunk of data. Let's take a quick look at a song we briefly examined in Part 3.


Form: 12 bars total; 3 4-bar phrases structured A B A. A is the name we give to the first section (or phrase) of a song. The A section often returns 1 or more times. The B section (sometimes called the "bridge") is the 2nd section, usually with melodic/harmonic content that's different from A. In this case, the B section can be broken down further into 2 identical 2-bar phrases.

Melody: The A sections begin with a skip up a 5th, then continue in step-wise (mostly) descending motion. The B section echoes the 2nd half of the A section's descending shape.

Harmony: This song uses 2 very simple progressions (and only 3 total chords). The A sections are I IV I | IV I V I. The B section is I IV I V played twice.

Style: Twinkle, Twinkle is a European folk song dating back at least as far as the mid-18th Century. It's normally sung very straight and with a medium tempo (unless we jazz it up a bit).


So, yeah. Twinkle, Twinkle isn't that exciting. But now we can apply the same principles to a jazz tune you might actually WANT to learn:

Sonnymoon For Two (composed and performed by Sonny Rollins).

Form: 12 measures, divided into 3 similar 4-bar phrases.
Melody: A 4-bar descending minor pentatonic "riff" that repeats 3 times.
Harmony: Blues in the key of Bb (much more about this ubiquitous progression later).
Style: Hard bop, medium tempo swing.

Sonny Rollins (tenor sax), Wilbur Ware (bass), and Elvin Jones (drums) recorded this performance in 1957 on a classic album called "A Night At the Village Vanguard". I strongly urge you to acquire a copy of this release - you can learn a LOT from listening to these jazz masters play.

The melody is based directly on a Bb minor pentatonic (Bb, Db, Eb, F, Ab):


And that's all the information you need, as this melody is one phrase ("riff") repeated 3 times. Use the recording and your ear to get this tune into your body and soul.

The bulk of this performance is Mr. Rollins & Co. improvising over the form of the Bb Blues:


As I said earlier, this form is 12 measures long, divided into 3 4-bar phrases. The harmony of Sonnymoon For Two is almost as simple as Twinkle, Twinkle. There are a total of 5 chords: I ii IV V and VI. In this case, all of the chords (except the ii) are dominant 7ths as opposed to triads. The structure of this 12 bar blues is: I / IV / I / I | IV / IV / I / VI | ii / V / I VI / ii V |

If you need a little refresher on the structure of these kinds of chords, please re-visit the discussion called Using Chord Tones in Part 2. You might also want to view our FREE JAZZ CHORD SPELLER VIDEOS.

Here's a Bb Blues backing track you can use to help you learn Sonnymoon For Two:

Bb Blues
Now let's work on creating melodies on Sonnymoon For Two, in 3 stages:
  1. Re-stating and embellishing the melody.
  2. Using fragments of scales and chords.
  3. Creating, repeating and transforming motifs using #1 and #2.
1. Embellish the melody:
After you've internalized the melody, use it as a starting point for your improvisation. Since the melody is based on the Bb minor pentatonic, you can use bits & pieces of that scale played up, down and sideways. Elongate the notes; shorten the notes; do whatever your EAR tells you to do just like you did in Part 1 and Part 2. Do you hear a note or two that's OUTSIDE of the pentatonic? Use it! Do you feel some different rhythms? Use them (as long as they swing!).

Remember that YOU get to control such things as note lengths, articulation, dynamics, density and use of space. As I said before, there's a lot of freedom, but also a lot of decisions that need to be made - and not much time to make them. That's why we're using just one melodic building block at a time. Listen carefully to how Sonny Rollins does exactly these kinds of things throughout his solo - brilliantly, of course.

2. Scales and chords:
I strongly urge you to next work on constructing melodic lines using only Chord Tones. By doing this, you will accomplish a number of things simultaneously.

Using Only Chord Tones will teach you:
  1. To be very specific and precise. Chord tones are the 4 most relevant tones in each bar, so knowing what they are is a very strong place to start.
  2. The form of the blues. One of the most common and important musical forms in jazz.
  3. Voice leading. The ways in which one chord leads smoothly into the next to form a coherent line.
  4. Where the notes are. How each of these chords feels and sounds on your particular instrument.
For some ideas on how to do this kind of practice, review the Using Chord Tones section of Part 2.

Now let's talk briefly about Scale Tones. Do you need to know your scales? Absolutely. But they're not going to help you much at this point, except when you apply them to the motif technique we'll discuss in a minute. Without going into a lot of detail, the reason that scales are NOT that helpful is that each one contains MOSTLY the same notes as the others in the context of the blues. Unless you have some fairly advanced skills, using scales can easily make you sound like you're rambling or lost in the form of the song. Until you really know what you're doing, the full scales contain too many choices and not enough specificity. Here's what I mean:


Notice that the first two scales, used on Bb7 and Eb7 (harmonies which take up 7 of the 12 bar form) differ by only one note: D (natural) on Bb7 and Db on Eb7. All the other notes overlap. Also notice that the scales for C-7 and F7 contain exactly the same notes as one another. The only chord from a distinctly different scale is for the G7, which uses up a whopping total of 6 beats (out of 48) of the blues form.

So using scales without further structural constraints is dicey for a beginning improviser. Let's add in some of those guidelines:

3. Creating, repeating and transforming motifs:
A motif is a short musical phrase (or succession of notes) that possesses a recognizable identity. Think of the first 4 notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony or the opening bass line to My Girl by The Temptations or the first 4 notes of the Dragnet TV theme (bonus points if you know this one). Those fragments can all be described as motifs.

In jazz, anything identified as a "riff" is a kind of motif. The melody of Sonnymoon For Two is essentially a long motif repeated 3 times to form the entire melody of the tune. There are many "riff tunes" in the jazz repertoire. The Count Basie band was famous for its riffs. A couple of Charlie Parker tunes are made up mostly of riffs: Now's The Time and Buzzy.

In the following chart I offer you some motivic ideas to spur your imagination. In it I've made up some short phrases you can use for Bb7 and Eb7, the two most prominent chords of the blues. After you get the hang of it you can invent some of your own plus some other motifs for the 2nd half of the blues progression.

#1 and #2 are based on the G minor pentatonic scale (G Bb C D F).* With the exception of the 5th (D) you can use the identical notes for either Bb7 or Eb7 because all of the tones are common to both scales. The next two ideas (#3 and #4) are riffs that retain the same basic shape but require small chromatic adjustments to "fit" each chord change. For instance, #3 has a D natural and an Ab (the 3rd and 7th of Bb7); when the chord moves to Eb7 I've moved the D to Db and the Ab down to G (7th and 3rd of the Eb7). Similarly in #4 I've moved the D on Bb7 down to Db on Eb7.

The last two examples are a bit more step-wise in shape than the previous ones. #5 uses a chunk of each chord's parent scale (mixolydian) arranged in a very similar way. #6 uses a chromatic piece of the "blues scale" and similar alterations to #3 to make the line on each chord more closely fit.
*G is the relative minor of Bb. It turns out that using the minor pentatonic or blues scale built on the relative minor is an excellent alternative to using those sounds built on the tonic major.


Use these and invent some motifs of your own and see how they sound with the Bb blues backing track:

Bb Blues

For Further Study

There are many print and online improvising manuals that can provide you with tons more examples of ways to use various scales and chord forms, some of which are listed HERE. The main thing to remember is that all of the techniques boil down to finding ways to connect what you're hearing with what comes out of your instrument. The most important thing you can do to develop your melodic sense is to learn tunes thoroughly - form, melody, harmony and style.

Here are a two more classic jazz compositions for your listening and learning pleasure. All of the elements we've been discussing are quite different in each of these tunes, but they're all there. I give you a brief description of each one but the rest of it is up to you. Have fun!

In A Sentimental Mood (composed by Duke Ellington, performed by James Carter Quintet).
Form: 32 measures, divided into 4 8-bar sections A A B A.
Melody: A sections are very similar, B section (also called the bridge) is quite different.
Harmony: The A sections begin in the relative minor (D), eventually ending up in the main key of F. The bridge is primarily a turnaround in the key of Db.
Style: Slow jazz ballad.

You can purchase a lovely backing track for this tune HERE.

Red Clay (composed and performed by Freddie Hubbard - skip to 1:00 to get to the tune).
Form: 8 bars, divided into 2 phrases with a 4 bar "blowing" section.
Melody: Pentatonic-based "riff" with a couple of chromatic surprises.
Harmony: Unique 4 bar, primarily step-wise chords nominally in C minor with a simplified 4 bar vamp used for improvising.
Style: 70's funk at a medium slow tempo.

You can pick up a backing track for this tune HERE.
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