Improve Your Improvising – September 2013

Improvisation III – Sept 13

Last month we began working on target notes. This is one of the most important concepts in improvisation regardless of the style of music being played because it gets to the heart of controlling what effect your playing has on the listener. When you hear an improvised melody played against harmony (chords) there are various effects that the choice of notes can have on your ear. We can categorise the possible note choices as follows:-

Note type

Relationship to underlying harmony / chords

Sound

Chord tones Only notes which form the chord itself Consonance, Stable, Plain, Basic, Satisfying
Extensions Notes from the ‘chord scale’ (e.g. Cmajor chord / C major scale) other than chord tones Medium consonance/dissonance, Interesting, Jazzy, Spicy, Floaty
Chromatic All other notes Disonant, Unstable, Awkward, Tense, Disturbing, Grating

The sounds described in the above table refer to the note types when they are placed in a strong, dominant position (e.g. a longer note played on the first beat of the bar exactly as the chord changes). If the same notes appear in a weak position (e.g. short duration, between two less tense notes) then the effect will be mitigated to a greater or lesser extent.

The following video demonstrates these sounds. You will hear a backing track of these chords:

Image of 12-bar Blues Chord Sequence

Then you will hear three improvisations over these chords: the first using ONLY chord tones, the second ONLY extensions and the third ONLY chromatic notes (this one sounds awful). Listen to how these three types of note sound, paying particular attention to the amount of tension they create – do the notes feel like they need to resolve (i.e. change to another more stable one) or do they feel very stable and resolved by themselves?

Of course, in reality you would probably never play like this (using only one of these kinds of notes). These are contrived examples designed to highlight the differences between these note categories. There would usually be a mixture, but depending on which ones are emphasised at any given moment the music will be felt to be more tense or more resolved.

This next video is an improvisation over the same chord sequence using a mixture of all three note types. At certain moments in the music more or less emphasis is given to one of the types creating an increase or decrease in the amount of tension. Listen to the improvisation and see if you feel this shifting sense of the music being settled or unsettled.

At this point it is important to mention that note choice is not the only way in which tension is increased or decreased. Rhythm, sound and dynamics, amongst other things, all contribute a great deal towards this end but note choice is the focus for us at the moment – later articles will deal with these other topics.

These demonstrations and explanations are designed to show the importance of being able to target different kinds of notes while you are improvising to build or release tension in the ear of the listener. In order to be able to do this you need to know in any given harmonic situation where to find the chord tones, extensions and chromatic notes. This involves learning your scales, arpeggios, intervals etc. If you don’t know this stuff comprehensively already – get learning! I may dedicate some later articles to this kind of thing but there are hundreds of good books, videos and teachers out there who can help you with these very important foundation studies.

Now, let’s get back to the blues we were playing last week and continue to find more target notes. As a reminder, here is our chord sequence:-

Image of Chord Sequence: 12-Bar Blues in A

And scale with root notes marked:-

Image of A minor Pentatonic Root Notes

Root notes are, of course, chord tones (see above) which are the most important of the note types talked about above by a long way. Being able to target chord tones will, in and of itself, make a dramatic difference to the quality of your improvising.

We will now move on from root notes to other chord tones. To explore what other notes a chord contains we need to look at a quick bit of theory. Basic chords (known as ‘Triads’) are comprised of three notes – the root note plus two others – derived from a scale. To make a major chord take a major scale – the root note is the first scale note, the other two are the 3rd and 5th notes of the scale. There’s a lot more to this but an example will suffice for now:-

G major scale

1 (root)

2

3

4

5

6

7

G

A

B

C

D

E

F#

G major chord

Root

3rd

5th

G

B

D

Getting back to the blues and the scale – here is a chart showing what the root, 3rd and 5th are for are for each of the three chords in the blues chord sequence:-

Chord

Root

3rd

5th

A

A

C#

E

D

D

F#

A

E

E

G#

B

And here are those notes marked on the scale diagram (NOTE: several of these notes are not in the original scale so they have been added):-

Image of A minor pentatonic scale including additional notes

The exercise is the same as last week adapted to include the new notes – to improvise using the ORIGINAL scale (diagram 2 above) but on the first beat of each new chord play either the root, 3rd or 5th of that chord. For the entire duration of each chord, any of that chord’s chord tones (root, 3rd, 5th) can be used in conjunction with the original scale (e.g. when playing over the E chord use the scale + G# & B). Care is required when mixing the added notes with the original scale so listen to what you are playing and continually assess whether or not it sounds good as well as checking for technical accuracy.

An example of this exercise:-

Come back on the 1st October for more on improving your improvising.

Jamie Howell has been performing and teaching for over 20 years. He studied jazz at Leeds College of Music and has been running his own jazz, funk and rock bands ever since. He has taught privately and in various institutions and has a special interest in improvisation.

Related posts: