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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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October 15, 2009 | Improvisation: too many choices?

You walk in to a Subway Sandwich shop and are instantly smacked with the smell of indecision. So many choices, 6", 12", or flatbread, Wheat, Italian, or Parmesan Oregano bread, American, Pepperjack or shredded Cheddar cheese, heated or microwaved, and that isn't even getting into the myriads of meats and vegetable toppings at your request. Choice is good, but not if you have the misfortune of standing in line behind someone who just can't make up her mind.

Walk across the street to Jimmy Johns, and you have about 5-8 choices of sandwich. No soup (unlike Subway), no pizza, some chips, but little else besides sodas. (I guess you can get a pickle. Yuck!) Maybe you ask for a little Dijon or some extra onions, but the fact is, you get in, give them your money and within seconds, they are handing you your lunch in a white wrapper. This is good because you're hungry, and you just want to get on with your life.

Improvisation can be this way. We have lots of choices in how to create our melodies. Mode-based, or lick based? Variations on the melody or aleatoric free-form. Scales, arpeggios, play the changes or go "outside?" This isn't even getting into the mind-numbing potential of higher level theory, including tri-tone subs, turn-arounds, "ii V7 I," Rhythm Changes, harmonic extensions, polytonalities, and chord alterations. You can be just as perplexed as the lady ahead of you in line at Subway, and the possiblities can have you stuck like a deer in headlights.

It's good to know choices, but once in a while it is good to just take a single path and build relationships on it. You can go to a party and meet new people, and focus in on learning their occupation. One of these guys you later find to be a brother-in-law to your next door neighbor, but you don't go to the party and decide, "I'm going to ask every man in the room who they are a brother-in-law to." That is information you ADD to an existing mental relationship. John the plumber is Vinny's cousin.

Music theory should be this way. We can take a group of notes, C, D, E, F#, G, A, Bb, and C. If we looked at it, we'd notice a resemblance to a C major scale (which you already know). You'd mentally check the difference, observing the F# is a raised 4th, and the Bb is a lowered 7th. You could think of it as a Lydian Scale with a lowered 7th. You could also think of it as a Mixolydian scale with a raised 4th. Would it matter? Only if you happened to be more familiar with Mixolydian (because you are already playing that mode in your Folk/Bluegrass repertoire). Perhaps Lydian is your thing because you always thought that was a cool jazzy sound.

This is an exceptionally useful sequence of notes, and one you can use in many different improvising environments, but we are about to show you a ton of options and we don't want you to be confounded by the choices. Again, pick your sandwich and build off it--to YOUR taste. Take a look (and a listen) to this sound in the first two measures.


Let's try and confound you some more by adding a scale we've introduced on the site already. (Note the reference links below.) You will note that the F# Altered Scale in the next two meaures has the same notes in it, just starting on a different scale degree. The Altered Scale is a personal favorite, one you can use in any Dominant Function chord setting. (We especially like it in minor keys.) Here's the cool thing. If you been practicing any of our Bebop Mandology patterns, you are already doing the Augmented 11th Scales. If Altered Scales are new to you, you can start learning the Aug 11th in all keys first.

Another relationship of note for you chronic theory geeks, the above scales (C and F#) have an important relationship. They are a Tri-tone apart, and if the word "tri-tone sub" is at all familiar, you're on the brink of learning yet another short cut.

Here's a related if not interesting, at least coincidental pattern:

Familiar? It's just an ascending version of the Melodic Minor scale, but observe it contains the same notes? If you've been practicing these at all, you already have both the Aug 11th and the Altered scales at your fingers.

Music theory should be just as much about closing in your world in as it is expanding it. In other words, all these choices have commonalties that translate into shortcuts, not mind-blowing options. You just need to be able to sift through what's working already, and add ingredients, little tips along the way.

Munch on that for a while...

The Altered Scale: Bebop Mandology
Tetrachordal Approach to Major Scale Modes
Extending your vocabulary: The Augmented 11th
Chord Commonalties: m6, m7b5, rootless 9th
Lydian Tricks

Posted by Ted at October 15, 2009 9:22 AM

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