One of the most common approaches to improvisation is to embellish or decorate a structure. For example, jazz musicians often improvise over chord progressions associated with classic tunes, sometimes even just decorating the tune itself, while Baroque opera singers were generally expected to improvise during their arias in ways that both made the music more beautiful and showed off their vocal skills. To embellish a structure in this way, we need to build a vocabulary of common decorative patterns and then practice applying them to music.
Decorative patterns differ widely among different musical traditions. Here, we’ll focus on a core set of relatively simple patterns that are common among classical and popular music, but the more you work with an improvised tradition, the more you will internalize the patterns people use for it.
Stepwise embellishments may be the simplest to apply. These fall into two main categories: neighbor tones and passing tones.
To apply a neighbor tone, start on a structural note, move to a note right next to it in the scale, and then back to the structural note. This decoration is appropriate anytime a structural tone lasts long enough to fit in this whole pattern, or where a structural tone repeats with enough time in the middle to fit in a neighbor tone.
Neighbor tones can also be extended into a “double neighbor.” In this case, a structural tone is decorated by both the note above and the note below in the scale.
Passing tones typically require two successive structural tones to be either two or three steps apart. In this situation, we can fill in that distance by step—with “passing tones.”
We will introduce one embellishment that is not stepwise: chordal skips. Anytime we have an explicit or intuitive sense of the chord appropriate to a part of a melody, we can skip from wherever we are to other notes of that chord.
Finally, there’s a technique often used by jazz musicians: choosing some characteristic rhythmic or melodic idea from one part of a melody and playing it somewhere else—on a different beat, in a different measure, and/or starting on a different scale degree.
Goal: Develop a “vocabulary” of melodic embellishment techniques
Before you start: Decide if you wish to use your voice or another instrument. Either is fine.
Instructions: Practice each type of embellishment listed above:
- Neighbor tones: perform a short string (3–7 notes) of even, medium-length pitches. Then repeat the string, giving each pitch an upper, lower, or “double” neighbor.
- Passing tones: perform a short string (3–7 notes) of even, medium-length pitches that includes at least 1 skip of a 3rd or 4th. Then repeat the string, filling in each skip with passing tones. Make sure that the original pitch plus passing tones do not take any longer than the original pitch without passing tones.
- Chordal skips: come up with a short (3–7 chord) chord progression with a number of beats per chord (ideally 3–4). Optionally, listen to the progression played on a chord instrument. Then work your way through the progression, skipping between notes of the chord in any pattern for as long as each chord lasts.
- Moving a motive: Think of a single phrase of a familiar melody. Identify a short, identifiable pitch and/or rhythm idea (1 measure or less) from that melody, and think of a way to insert it—transposed is fine—into a different portion of the melody. Play the resulting melody.
Goal: Practice applying embellishments to a melody.
Before you start: You’ll need a melody or collection of melodies. You can work from notated melodies from a sight-reading anthology, melodies you know, or any other source. You can use your voice or another instrument, as you wish.
- Perform through the melody.
- Take a moment to review the melody, noting any opportunities for embellishment.
- Perform the melody again, this time applying the embellishments.