Improvisation is one of the best ways to experiment with the relationships between melody and harmony. These connections are crucial to how music works, and if you start to make those connections internally, it’ll help all of your musical skills. We’ll work on this connection more in depth in a future chapter, but for now, we’ll learn some of the basics and start to hone our instincts.
Improvising over a chord progression starts with an understanding of which notes are in each chord. These “chord tones” will almost always sound in some way “right” when we play or sing them over the chords themselves. Of course, using only chord tones is very limiting, and there are styles of improvisation where sticking to the chord tones is considered boring. But even there, it makes sense to start by understanding the chord tones.
Focusing on chord tones like this is in a sense a “vertical” way of understanding improvisation. That is, it’s like slicing the music into discrete chords and stacking the right notes for each moment. But music is usually more compelling when it also has a “horizontal” sense—the sense that each thing leads naturally to the next.
To structure the “horizontal” in our improvisation, it can be useful to start with a “guide tone” line. (The term guide tone is adapted from jazz pedagogy, though we won’t necessarily focus on chord 3rds and 7ths as jazz musicians typically do.) To construct a guide tone line, choose one or occasionally two chord tones per chord. Most often, it is nice if these “guide tones” move from one to the next by step, though sometimes a small skip or staying in the same place is also nice. Once you’ve come up with a guide tone line, then, you can elaborate it using the skills of elaboration we worked on in a previous section.
Goal: Develop a sensitivity to how melody relates to harmony, and balance “vertical” and “horizontal” aspects of improvisation.
Before you start: You’ll need some kind of accompaniment that clearly conveys a chord progression. This can be played by someone else or from a recording. You can use your voice or some other instrument, as you wish.
- Consider the chord progression. (You may be given it in notation, have it described to you, or listen to it and try to figure it out by ear.) For each chord, figure out which notes are chord tones.
- For each chord, choose one or (for a long-ish chord) possibly two chord tones to act as your “guide tones.” As you choose, make sure to think “horizontally”—in particular, it’s nice to have stepwise motion as you move to new guide tones between chords.
- Optionally, perform your “guide tone line” along with the accompaniment.
- Now, consider how you can make your guide tone line a little more interesting. You may wish to use simple embellishments, or you may be inspired to do something much more complex.
- Perform your embellished melody along with the accompaniment.