Contour and Shape

In the previous section, we considered rhythm, meter, and pacing. Here, we’ll add pitch. If you’re having trouble with pitch, however, we encourage you to make sure your rhythmic/metric foundation is strong.

Your pitch structures contribute to an improvisation in several ways. Most obviously, they set up the key context. But pitches can also convey a sense of “shape” or contour as they go up and down, and they can convey tension and release as we use more and less “clashing” notes (relative either to the key or to a sounding chord).

First, let’s orient to the key. The key may be clear if you have an ensemble playing along with you. If you’re improvising solo or with something more ambiguous, then use our familiar steps to set up an internal sense of key before you start. Even if you’re performing on an instrument, this will help you imagine the pathways you’re setting up for yourself.

Orienting to a major key:

Orienting to a minor key:

Once you’ve established your key context, you’re ready to make some music! There are some very specific approaches to choosing pitches in improvisation that you can take, including chord-scale theory, the idea of “guide tones,” and basing your improvisation on an existing tune. Here, however, we focus on basic advice that we hope is useful across different approaches.

  • Remember that (especially at first) you may wish to come up with your rhythms first, then add pitches. Particularly if we follow the procedures in the previous section, this can help us focus on pacing—which we can then try to match with our pitch structures.
  • Think about how to end your phrase in a way that is appropriate to the key. It’s particularly common for melodies to end with downward, stepwise motion, and to end on scale degrees 2/re, 1/do, or 7/ti, at the end of each phrase.
  • Decide on a “shape” that is appropriate to your chosen starting point and the key. If you start on scale degree 1/do, then unless you choose to perform it relatively high in your range, you may wish to start by ascending (likely followed by descending). If you choose to start on scale degree 5/sol, you might start with a leap up to scale degree 1/do or simply do a slow descent across the whole melody. Whatever you choose, make sure you have an intention before you start.
  • Rhythmic patterns often go with pitch patterns, but most often those pitch patterns are moved to a new place in the scale with each repetition—often down a step each time.

Activity: Focus on contour and shape

Goal: Develop habits of planning out pitch shape/contour in improvisation

Before you start: We encourage you to use your primary instrument. Decide whether you will be improvising solo or with an ensemble. You may also wish to start by coming up with a rhythmic improvisation using the activity described in the previous section and only then use the following instructions (adapted to remove redundant steps) to add pitches.


  1. Decide on a key and a starting note. If appropriate, set up your internal sense of key using the steps above.
  2. Plan out a number of phrases appropriate to the amount of time you have. If you’re just starting out, one or two phrases is plenty. Consciously decide to make space between the phrases, and how you want them to relate. The relationships among phrases are particularly apparent by how they contrast (higher/lower, louder/softer, more/less active, etc.) and how they end (particularly whether they end on more or less stable scale degrees).
  3. Plan where the climax will occur, a basic idea of how you will make it feel like the climax, and a basic idea of how you’ll lead up to it in terms of pitch and rhythm. It’s most common for the climax to be a high point in the melodic shape.
  4. Take a deep breath, and perform your improvisation!
  5. If time, come up with a plan for improvement, focused on pitch contour/shape. If your relationship to the key was tenuous, make sure you are internalizing the key and consider important notes of the key that you might more clearly emphasize. If your improvisation felt like it wandered around aimlessly, refine your plan based on your intention for how phrases will relate to each other, making sure to leave some space between melodic ideas.



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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