A Few Thoughts on the Subject by Max Ridgway


This little essay is not meant to be a comprehensive examination of jazz improvisation, nor is it an authoritative or final word on the subject; there are many excellent books already, and they are all helpful. I am merely presenting a few ideas that will hopefully form a conceptual framework that will help the reader (you) get started in the rewarding study of jazz improvisation.  Concepts are presented in a progressive order, beginning with very simple ideas and gradually building towards more complex ideas. Each topic could be expanded and explored in much more detail.  But in the interests of keeping things concise, I will simply present a concept with a single example and leave it to the reader to explore further.


The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines musical improvisation as “the art of performing music as an immediate reproduction of simultaneous mental processes without the aid of manuscript of memory…”. This is a very good definition in that it links improvisation with mental processes, and while it is true that all kinds of musical improvisation originate with mental processes, it is especially so with jazz.  Successful jazz improvisation requires, not only imagination and intuition, but also a high degree of theoretical knowledge about music, especially harmony, for the simple reason that jazz improvisation usually takes place within the context of the harmonic framework of a song.  Therefore, we will say that the goal of jazz improvisation is to express harmony in a melodic way. To say it another way, the goal is to articulate the chords through single notes.


The fundamental materials for improvisation are scales and arpeggios.  I should quickly point out that, in the same way that simply reciting the alphabet does not constitute communication, neither a scale nor an arpeggio alone constitutes meaningful improvisation. However, just as the alphabet forms the raw material of communication, scales and arpeggios are the raw materials of improvisation, and when handled in an artful way, can be a useful way to begin to approach jazz improvisation.


As an example, here is the most common harmonic sequence found in jazz, the “ii-V-I” chord progression[1] (for the purpose of keeping things simple, I will use the key of C in most examples).






Here are some basic observations about this chord sequence:

  1. The fundamental harmony of jazz is based on a four-note chord comprised of the root, third, fifth, and seventh. (Seventh chords are essential to jazz and the four-note seventh chord is the basic harmonic unit. Added tones such as the 9th, 11th, and 13th are not essential to the fundamental harmony and are used to add color or to increase harmonic tension.)
  2. Notice that each chord in this sequence shares two tones in common with the chord preceding it. Likewise, each chord contains two tones that are not in common with the chord preceding it. This is an important point and we will return to it later when considering the best way to construct melodies that reflect the change of harmony from one chord to the next.


The simplest way to express harmony in single notes is in the form of an arpeggio:




The second method of expressing harmony with single notes is to use the appropriate scale. When considering the proper scale for any given chord, it is important to consider how the chord functions within the key of that moment.  For instance, in a ii-V-I sequence (in this case Dm7-G7-Cmaj7) the final chord (Cmaj7 in this example) is the chord of resolution and is assumed to be the key within which the preceding ii and V (Dm7 and G7) are functioning.

The only difference between a seven note scale and a four note arpeggio is that three notes are skipped in order to form the arpeggio. For each chord in the ii-V-I sequence, the notes missing from the arpeggio should be drawn from the key of that moment (defined by the chord of resolution). For example, in the sequence Dm7-G7-Cmaj7, the notes needed to change the Dm7 arpeggio into a full scale are drawn from the key of C Major, resulting in a D Dorian scale for the Dm7. Likewise, the scale used for the G7 is a G Mixolydian scale[2].




Notice that the scales used with each chord also contain the arpeggio tones on the strong rhythmic units and that the additional scale tones could be viewed as passing tones of lesser importance:





The important conclusion to be drawn here is that the arpeggio is a strong conceptual framework for improvisation.  When improvising there is really no need to think about modes such as Dorian or Mixolydian at all; one need only think in terms of the chord of that moment with its arpeggio. Any passing tones will be drawn from the eventual target chord.

If you played the previous examples you probably noticed that while the simple arpeggios and scales adequately reflect the underlying harmony, musically speaking, the result is somewhat monotonous and predictable.  The first and most obvious way to rectify this problem is to combine arpeggios and scale fragments.






Notice that this example is more effective and interesting to hear for one primary reason: things are mixed up and made more unpredictable.  This example illustrates two ways of mixing things up:

  1. Arpeggios and scales are combined
  2. Melodic direction is changed (arpeggio – up, scale fragment – down).


In order to construct a more intelligent and artful melodic line, let’s take another look at the underlying harmony. Notice that between each chord in this sequence there are two notes in common and two notes that differ. (This is not the case with every chord sequence, but will always be true in a chord sequence characterized by root motion down by a 5th).





In order for the melodic improvisation to successfully suggest the movement of chords, the common tones should be avoided at the point of change from one harmony to another.   Notice that the non-common tones of the first chord can resolve downward by step into chord tones of the subsequent harmony.





One way to strengthen a melodic line is to make use of this kind of resolution at the point at which one chord changes to the next.











Both of these examples illustrate ways in which the harmony of the chord progression is suggested by resolving a noncommon chord tone (a tone not common to both chords) into a chord tone at the point at which the harmony changes.  The chord tone at the point of resolution could be viewed as a target tone.  This is an important concept and we will return to it later, but first let’s consider other ways to use simple arpeggios and scale fragments.






Extending the arpeggio to include the 9th of the chord adds interest and a sense of harmonic complexity to the melody line.  Also notice that this example skips around within the arpeggio at certain points, illustrating the benefits of mixing things up.






This example again illustrates the benefits of mixing things up. The Dm7 melody starts with a scale fragment beginning of the 5th scale degree rather than on the root. Wide leaps within the arpeggio also serve to heighten the interest by making things less predictable.

One general observation that might be made at this point is that almost any combination or ordering of tones within the arpeggio or scale will work.  However, notice two things that help the strengthen this line and give it direction:

  1. The melody resolves into a chord tone at the point at which the chord changes
  2. Notice the use of sequencing (restating a melodic fragment at a higher or lower pitch) marked by the green brackets.

Here is another example:





Using no more than the techniques discussed already (arpeggios, scale fragments, direction changes, 9ths, resolution tones) the creative possibilities are nearly endless.  However, some additional concepts will provide creative tools that will be useful in order to make these improvised melodies more sophisticated sounding and intellectually interesting.


Any gap or space in an arpeggio, a skip, or a scale fragment may be filled in with chromatic passing tones.  Chromatic passing tones add interest and contrast to an improvised melody line.





In this example chord tones (R, 3, 5, 7) and upper structure tension tones (9, 11, 13) are designated with the appropriate number or letter.  The chromatic passing tones are marked “ch”.  Notice that the Dm7 line begins with the 11th.


Approach tones are an important tool for the jazz improviser.  The idea is that chord tones become targets which are approached by tones either from above or below. These approach tones may be diatonic or chromatic, single or double.  The previous example could be analyzed in an alternative way by examining the use of these approach tones.







In this example the chord tone targets are circled in green.  The approach tones are marked “CH” for chromatic (in this example, double chromatic).  Non-chromatic (or diatonic) approaches are marked with an “S” meaning that they are approached by step rather than by half-step.

The approach to the target tone can be from both above and below, as in the following example:





In this example the target chord tones (circled in green) are approached chromatically from above and below (Dm7 – G7 and G7 – Cmaj7).


The concept of approach tones is a powerful tool for the jazz improviser and one that is used by many of the best musicians in the world of jazz. The following example is by guitarist Pat Martino:






Notice that everything in this passage can be understood in terms of the concepts and techniques discussed previously.


  1. The improvisation over the Dm7 in measure one begins with the 13th of the chord, followed by a three note scale fragment.
  2. If the scale fragment had continued, the next note would have been F natural. The space between G and F is filled by a chromatic approach to the F (a target chord tone, the 3rd of the chord).
  3. The F natural is followed by an arpeggio which moves in the opposite direction. The principle here is to mix things up by changing from scale fragment to chromatic approach to arpeggio.
  4. Measure two begins with a double chromatic approach which surrounds the 5th of the chord (D).
  5. This is followed by a chromatic approach to the 7th of the chord (though this could also be seen as a scale fragment: D – E – F). This is followed by a chromatic approach to the root of the chord from above. Notice that everything in this measure could be viewed as either a chord tone target or an approach to that target. Also notice that each approach is different: the 5th is chromatically surround from above and below, the 7th is approached singly from below and the root is approached chromatically from above.
  6. The last eighth-note of the second measure begins another double chromatic approach, surrounding the 3rd of the Cmaj7 from above and below. This is followed by an arpeggio which concludes with a diatonic (step-wise rather than chromatic) surrounding of the target chord tone of final resolution (C).



[1] The chord progression “ii-V-I” refers to the standard system of numbering diatonic chords, that is to say, the chords found within a particular key, derived from the notes of the scale that defines that key.  For example, in the key of C, the notes of the scale are C,D,E,F,G,A,B.  The chords built on each of these scale degrees are numbered with Roman numerals as follows: I = C major, ii = D minor, iii = E minor, IV = F major, V = G major, vi = A minor, vii = B diminished.

[2] The modes are derived from the same pitch material as the major scale, each beginning on a different scale degree. For instance the modes derived from the C major scale are as follows: C = Ionian (major), D = Dorian, E = Phrygian, F = Lydian, G = Mixolydian, A = Aeolian (natural minor), B = Locrian.