The Architecture of Improvisation

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It is rather amazing how musicians these have the means and resources to gain more information about musical technique and theory than ever before through private lessons, educational DVDs, Skype, YouTube, and so on. But as it was before, many musicians still just have more technique and knowledge than they have actual good ideas, merely running the “right” scales over chords that they were taught automatically go together. But how a musician conceptualizes theory in their heads can make a huge difference in their playing, and that is where a more “architectural” approach to music theory comes into play.

Improvisation that is based on architecture (theoretical structures) differs from regular scales and arpeggios in that they incorporate shifting chord shapes over a base harmony without the listener getting lost in the resulting pattern. That is because there is an internal logic to the overlaid structures that keep them stable so that they don’t sound random. No matter how dissonant they may get, their cohesion and logic make them seem “right”.

There are many advantages of studying and using this kind of improvisation in one’s career. First, it helps open up many new and more sophisticated ways of composing melodies and chord changes, etc., which will certainly bolster your career. The modern woodwind musician has to play so many styles of music, compose for many types of media, teach, play multiple winds in Broadway-style shows and so on, being more advanced conceptually does nothing but help your career. Second, thinking structurally in this manner prepares one for transitioning into types of music from other countries who have radically different ways of thinking about rhythm, modulation, and so on. Moving from ”X must follow Y” to “X can be overlaid over Y” certainly helps one prepare for the radical shift in thinking one must make when moving from Western styles of music to various Eastern or African styles.

The first concept we will look at is overlaying one type of chord over the same type while varying the root from which we begin, which gives us a special kind of sonic shape that is somewhere in between. For example, if you overlay an E♭7 chord over a C7 chord, they will not sound like two separate chords, but rather as a big C #9 ♭9 chord. If one does the same with a G♭7 chord over a C7 chord, the result is a C#11#5♭9 chord. Finally, if you overlay an A7 chord over C7, you get a C #11 6 #5 chord. There is a special quality that occurs when this happens. They do not sound like regular dominant chords. That is because you have played dominant chords starting on E♭, G♭, and A, which make up the structure of a diminished 7th chord: every time you move to a new diminished chord it is only a minor third away, consistently, which gives the overall sequence a logical combination of consonance and chromaticism. This technique is what is known as playing the diminished “axis”, building dominant and diminished qualities in the same space.

The second, increasingly advanced concept is memorizing a set of chord shapes that are unrelated to the shapes we are applying them to. For example, rather than merely arpeggiating a C7 chord as is, we can arpeggiate a major seven flat 5 chord starting on B♭, which creates a beautiful C13 sound. Playing an E major seven flat 5 over C creates another beautiful C dominant sound (a C#9#5). Even if you try something a little more adventurous like playing the major seven flat 5 a half step above C, you still get a lovely C suspended 4, flat ninth sound. Once having discovered and memorized a few places where you can utilize the major seven flat 5 over other bass notes or chords, you can then move on to another shape, such as the diminished natural seventh chord. This shape too can create some lovely dominant sounds, such as if we place on E over a C7 chord, resulting in a C#9 sound. Placing a G diminished natural seventh chord over C creates a C #11♭9 sound, which is a great for jazz saxophonists to use when playing Joe Henderson style improvisations.

Another more expansive, abstract example are what are know as “Coltrane Changes”. On many of John Coltrane’s classic late career compositions he utilized a set series of six chord changes all based on the interval of a minor third followed by a perfect fourth, e.g. C E♭ A♭ B E G C. Thus, no matter what note one may start on, if they move in this manner they will return to their original note. So if one is improvising on a C7 chord, playing the series as dominant chords will bring you back to C7. Since the interval of a minor third doesn’t change, this brings a feeling of logic and order that helps the listener not feel lost when the harmony gets abstract. Considering this, one can then experiment with this kind of logic and create chromatic chord changes that contain similar logic, i.e. moving the chord sequences up by a half step until they return to the original: C E♭ A♭, D♭ E A, D F B♭, E♭ G♭ B, and finally E G C. Thus, even though the harmony is not diatonic at all, the consistent intervallic movement is the structure to which one’s ear can attune.

These techniques will certainly expand your ability to improvise, compose, and organize your musical thoughts, so good luck exploring them.





2 thoughts on “The Architecture of Improvisation

  1. Oh, that is almost Santa; Gift! Thanks a lot, Dr. Daniel, for the one more inspiring article from the musicology master! As a free partisan impro guitarist I would tell the architecture (theoretical structures) concept of improvisation is awesome. It corresponds to idea of musical space – the axes of time & silence, movements of micro/macro tonalities, etc. Very value your blog!

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