Exploring Music's Complexities

Jazz Improvisation

What is Jazz Improvisation?

“In jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up.  Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary.  There’s no right of wrong, just some choices that are better than others.”   Wynton Marsalis

If you ask any jazz lover what it is that attracts musicians and listeners they will most likely agree it is the improvisational aspect.  The word improvisation is used a lot but what is it?

Definitions include:  Improvisation is instant composition (1), the instant creation of a new melody; Jazz improvisation occurs when fresh melodies are created over the continuous repeating cycle of chord changes (2); Basically, improvisation is composing on the spot and coming up with melodies off the top of one’s head (3).  Listen to David Grissom and Daniel Kobialka as you read through the text to get the feel.


While we think of improvisation as a jazz characteristic this has not always been the case.  Bach, Handel, Mozart and List were known for their ability to improvise.  Today classical music is largely performed according to precise musical notation while jazz allows a great deal of freedom to the musician to “make up” a solo.

In jazz the improvisation is usually related to a song.  In earlier times musicians improvised by ear. These improvisations were guided by the performer’s technical facility, mood, and the piece being performed.  The song itself provided the parameters for improvisation (4).

How Improvisation Begins

 Today, an improviser usually has some idea of the association between chord symbols and scales and how to develop a melodic line.  The third and seventh of each chord define the sound of the chord.  The two chords help identify changes.  The use of other notes may add harmonic richness to the sounds.

 The kind of a chord being used may be referred to as the degree of a scale (1st, 3rd, 5th.   In the scale of C,  C is the first note, the third is three notes up from C, the note E.

 A chord is two or more notes played at the same time.  At the bottom of every chord is its root.  Counting up from the root is the 3rd , which site on the 3rd degree of the scale.  The 3rd can be either raised or lowered.  The raised 3rd is referred to as the major 3rd, and the lowered 3rd as the minor 3rd.  (5).

 Jazz musicians do not always play all the notes of the chord.  They choose particular combinations of notes to create the sound they want.  These sounds are called voicings.

 Two systems of notation may be used to identify chords and the information they give.  The first of these are chord symbols. They are usually written above the stave.  They tell the musician what the harmonic background is and the chords that are to be played.

 Roman numerals are a way of identifying which degree of a scale a particular note is on.  It identifies where the chord sits in relation of the home key.   It also shows whether a chord is major or minor.  The II-V-I is an example.

 Chord progressions are fundamental to improvisation.  The twelve-bar blues is one of the most popular sequences used in mainstream jazz.  It is a short, repeated chord sequence lasting twelve measures.  It is made with three chords built on the root, 4th and 5th of the scale.  When the blues becomes an instrumental form it goes from a vocal style to a style that incorporates a repertoire of ornaments, glissandos and accents and using characteristic pitches and scales (6). 

 Following the twelve-bar blues, the most important chord progression in jazz is the ii-V, which may or may not resolve to I.  In a major key, the ii-V-I progression consists of a minor seventh chord, a dominant seventh chord, and a major seventh chord.  The above is an example of a system of notation used to identify chords and consider the information they give.   In major keys, chord II is always a minor 7 chord.  Chord V is always a 7 chord and I is always a maj7 chord (4).

 While there are numerous possible chord progressions there are also some building blocks that account for many of these.  The process of developing a vocabulary for jazz improvisation takes many hours.  It has been suggested that the best way to add to ones jazz vocabulary is to listen to recordings of jazz masters.  Doing this provides examples of phrasing and licks.

  A Lick” describes a stock pattern or phrase (6). A lick is made up of a short series of notes that are used in solos and melodic lines and accompanying.  A riff is related concept that includes repeated chord progressions.  While the lick is usually associated with single-note melodic lines a riff may include repeated chard progressions.   Licks can either be a hook or be used to fill a short passage between phrases of a melody.

 Melodic, harmonic and motivic are three techniques used in Jazz improvisation. If the musician uses slurs, alternate notes and syncopation it is melodic.  Harmonic improvisation uses chords and tone centers to inspire new soloing.  Improvisation that serves to sophisticate the musical arrangement is referred to as motivic.  Long time jazz musicians combine all three techniques to create new works (2).

 Good jazz takes a simple idea and repeats it.  This repetition creates interest and sets up a story.  An example is an improvisation in the form of AABA contains the same thing repeated and only the Bridge is new material.  Alternating rhythmic activity creates interest and meaning (1).

In summary, the overall sound of a jazz performance is the result of the composition’s parameters for improvisation and the personal style of the musician.  The creativity of the improviser will determine what he will play.

 “In fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.”  Steve Lacy


1.  http://www.dictionary.com/browse/improvisation

 2.  http://www.apassion4jazz.net

3.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz_improvisation

 4.  http://craigbuhler.com/200906/22/a-brief-definition-of-jazz-improvisation/

 5.  Beale, Charles.  JAZZPIANO.  Wisconsin.  Hal Leonard.  ABRSM Publishing.  Pages 31-60.

6.  Middleton, Richard (1990).  Studying Popular Music.  Philadelphia:  Open University Press p. 137.

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Categorised in: Archive, Music Theory, Performers, Social Side of Music


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