Monthly Musings – March 23, 2017

Modal Improvisation

 Introduction

Most improvised jazz solos are related to the chord progression of some standard from the Great American Songbook or a jazz composition written for instrumental use only. These pieces may have a couple of dozen different chords, each requiring a different scale or mode for improvisation. However, there are some compositions that have only a few different chords, each of which lasts four measures or longer. This makes it easier for the improviser because he or she doesn’t have to remember a lot of different scales and also doesn’t have to navigate changes between those sounds quickly. However, a different sort of challenge presents itself. When there are many chords, an improviser may create interesting melodies by simply outlining the various chords. In a modal environment, the soloist has to use more imagination to create interesting melodies in relation to a single chord/scale. Never fear. There are some practice techniques that will help inspire your melodic thinking! But first you have to learn the mode on which you wish to improvise.

Learning a Mode (what notes are in it?)

Let’s take a look at a Dorian mode, a scale that is popular for modal improvisation. A Dorian mode is the 2nd mode of a major scale, that is, it begins on the 2nd note of the major scale. Since it comes from the major scale a whole step below, it has the same key signature as that scale. So a D Dorian scale has no sharps or flats like the C major scale from which it comes! It relates to a D min7 chord which is found in the scale as the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th notes of the scale. You can also think of a Dorian mode as being a natural minor scale with the 6th scale step raised a ½ step. A third possibility is to think of Dorian as a scale with ½ steps between 2 and 3 and 6 and 7. So there is no one way or best way to learn a scale.

Which notes to emphasize!

Naturally, chord tones are always important to emphasize when improvising to make clear what kind of chord is being heard! But it is also important to be aware of which notes identify a particular mode! In the case of Dorian, it is the 6th scale step that identifies the Dorian sound. The 6th scale step is a half-step lower in a natural minor scale so, if we don’t hear that scale step, we might recognize that it is a minor sound but we won’t be able to tell whether we are hearing natural minor or Dorian minor. So, in our improvisation, we want to emphasize the 3rd and 7th notes of the mode to support the minor 7th chord sound. But we also want to emphasize the 6th scale step which identifies that it is a Dorian scale and not a natural minor scale. By the same token, it would be important to emphasize the 2nd scale step which is only a half step above the root in a Phrygian mode .

Pick your favorite notes!

In any scale, some notes are dissonant and some are consonant. In the Dorian scale all of the notes are possible because they are all chord tones of a minor 13th chord. But, in any scale, wherever there are two notes a 1/2 step apart, one will be more dissonant than the other. For example, in the D Dorian scale, the notes E and F are a 1/2 step apart. E is more dissonant. In the same scale, B and C are a 1/2 step apart and B is more dissonant. E and B are still good choices because they are the 9th and 13th of the chord respectively. It is important to listen to each scale tone and think how it feels to you in relation to the chord. Though it is impossible to verbalize, I know exactly how I feel about every note in a Dorian scale (or any other scale for that matter) and why I like to emphasize certain notes in an improvisation!

Exercises in different types of motion

When you play a D Dorian scale, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, that is only the beginning. To aid in learning the scale more thoroughly and to discover a variety of types of melodic motion, it is useful to play through the scale doing the following:

1) Play broken intervals such as 3rds – ex. D-F, E-G, F-A, G-B, A-C, B-D. These intervals may also be broken in the opposite direction – ex. F-D, G-E, A-F, B-G,  etc.

2) Play patterns such as 1-2-3-4, 2-3-4-5, 3-4-5-6, etc. Also, play them down the scale – 8-7-6-5, 7-6-5-4, 6-5-4-3, etc.

3) Play triads in the scale – 1-3-5, 2-4-6, 3-5-7, etc. Triads may be broken in several ways – 1-3-5, 5-3-1, 3-1-5, 3-5-1, 1-3-5-3-1, 3-1-3-5-3, 3-5-3-1-3, etc.

4) Play the diatonic 7th chords of the scale. These may be broken in numerous ways! 1-3-5-7, 7-5-3-1, 3-1-3-5-7, 5-7-5-3-1, 3-1-3-5-7-5, etc. Use your imagination to create arpeggios in a variety of ways.

5) Move around in the scale freely, using different intervals and concentrate on which notes you like to emphasize! 

Some Rhythmic ideas

Rhythmic repetition is a good thing – when we hear an idea we like, we usually like to hear it again. Try using the same rhythm of only a few notes and keep repeating the same rhythm but change the notes each time! In the process, you will discover some melodic ideas that you like better than others and you will be developing a stronger melodic sense. Good melodies are generally composed with two, four or eight measure phrases. Ideas are stated and there are pauses between phrases. If you can play phrases in your improvisation, it will probably make better music. Think of the melody of some familiar tune and use only the rhythm of that tune with different notes. The result will be that you will play more musical phrases of two, four or eight measures.

Some good modal tunes to play are: So What, Cantaloupe Island, Maiden Voyage, Song For My Father, Little Sunflower and All Blues. Have fun!

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