In a previous post “How to Get Started Learning Jazz Improvisation” I talked about starting out with a very simple melody and improvising over that tune by elaborating on the melody, being always mindful of how each note you play fits into the Major scale of the key.
I used the example tune “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” I selected that particular tune for its simplicity, and because of the easy jazz chord progressions associated with the melody.
An understanding of chord progressions (or as jazz musicians commonly refer to them, “chord changes” or just “changes”) is essential for learning improvisation. In this post I’m going to revisit our sample tune, but this time insert the chord symbols and show how to relate a specific scale to each chord.
The tune “Saints” uses only 3 chords. In this case, we’re in the key of C Major, so the 3 chords are:
C Major – chord symbol “C Maj”
F Major – chord symbol “F Maj”
G Dominant Seventh Chord (or just “G Seven”) – chord symbol “G7”
Here are the 3 chords:
Now of course, not every piece you play will be in C Major. So when talking about chord progressions, we often label the chords with Roman numerals to indicate on which degree of the scale they are built (as opposed to any one particular key).
When we label our 3 chords using Roman numerals they are, respectively:
I – The chord built on the 1st degree of the scale (in this case the C Major scale)
IV – The chore built on the 4th degree of the scale
V7 – The chore built on the 5th degree of the scale
Now if you have access to a keyboard instrument (and hopefully you do) play these chords in the order above. Get the sound of each chord in your ear. And also memorize how the chords sound relative to one another, when played in this progression – I, IV, V7
NOTE: if you do NOT have access to a keyboard, I strongly recommend you purchase one. Going forward, it’s very important that you hear chord changes, and get them “in your head,” and for that you’ll need a piano, guitar, or some kind of keyboard instrument.
They can be had fairly inexpensively. For instance, the Casio SA-46 -Key Portable Keyboard can be purchased through Amazon.com for $39.00
Now let’s play a C Major scale.Notice that the C Maj chord is built using the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degree of the scale. (The top “C” is just the 1st degree of the scale an octave higher)
Next, let’s play the same notes in the C Major scale, but instead of starting on “C” we’ll start on “F.”By playing a scale starting on the 4th degree of the C Major scale, we get what’s called a “Lydian Scale” (an “F” Lydian scale in this case).
Now the F Major scale would have a Bb, not a B♮. But by using B♮ we get an “F” Lydian scale, which is essentially a Major scale with a raised 4th degree.
So when the underlying harmony is the IV chord of the key we’re in, we can play a Lydian Scale starting on the root of that chord.
Now let’s repeat this exercise, but begin on the 5th degree of the C Major scale.By playing a scale starting on the 5th degree of the C Major scale, we get what’s called a “Mixolydian Scale” (a “G” Mixolydian scale in this case).
The G Major scale would have an F#, not an F♮. But by using F♮ we get a “G” Mixolydian scale, which is essentially a Major scale with a lowered 7th degree.
So when the underlying harmony is the V chord of the key we’re in, we can play a Mixolydian Scale starting on the root of that chord.Now I want to point out that the C Major scale, the F Lydian scale, and the G Mixolydian scale all have the SAME NOTES! But because they begin and end on a different degree of the C Major scale, they have a different sound.
So before we continue, let’s review what we’ve discussed so far:
• When you encounter the I chord of whatever key you’re in, you can play the notes of a Major scale beginning on the root of that I chord.
• When you begin and end on the 4th degree of a Major scale, you get a Lydian Scale
• A Lydian scale is essentially a Major scale with a raised 4th degree
• When you encounter the IV chord of whatever key you’re in, you can play the notes of a Lydian scale beginning on the root of that IV chord.
• When you begin and end on the 5th degree of a Major scale, you get a Mixolydian Scale
• A Mixolydian scale is essentially a Major scale with a lowered 7th degree
• When you encounter the V (or V7) chord of whatever key you’re in, you can play the notes of a Mixolydian scale beginning on the root of that V chord.
Now you may be wondering “Well, if these 3 scales all use the same notes, why can’t I just play the notes of a C Major Scale all the way through the entire piece?”
Well, in effect, YOU ARE! But it may sound strange if you’re having a lot of non-chord tones landing on the beat.
For instance if you have a G7 chord, but play a C Major scale starting on a “C” you will have “C” and “E” landing on the beat, against “B”, “D”, and “F” in the underlying G7 chord, creating a dissonance, and probably not the sound you were hoping for.
So it’s a good idea to be familiar with the related Lydian and Mixolydian scales, and practice playing over the chord progressions starting on the 1st (or sometimes the 3rd, or 5th) degree of the respective scale.
Back to Our Example
Now let’s look again at “Saints” with the chord symbols added above the tune.
Next, let’s do this really simple (and yet, very important!) exercise of playing through the chord changes using the related scales.
So we’ll play a C Major scale over the C Major chord, the F Lydian scale over the F Major chord, and the G Mixolydian scale over the G7 chord.
Now let’s play the arpeggios of the chord changes – that is, the chord tones in sequence.
So now let’s get creative. Play it again, and this time:
• Play bits and pieces of the scales
• Begin on different notes of the scales (i.e. don’t always begin on the root)
• Add in some arpeggios
• Begin on different notes of the arpeggios
The idea is, mix it up! But always be mindful of…
• What is the underlying chord?
• How does that chord fit into the key? Is it a “I” “IV” or “V” chord?
• What is the underlying scale associated with that chord?
Here’s just one example of what you might play. But don’t just play this example! Make up several of your own.
The point of this exercise is to get you comfortable enough with the chords and the related scales, that you can begin and end on different notes while still staying within the harmonies.
I suggest you spend some time practicing this exercise. When you feel ready, you can take it a step further by adding some chromatic & diatonic passing tones and neighboring tones. For example:
Now try varying the rhythms and adding some syncopation.
So at this point, you’re not really playing the “melody” of the tune at all. But it’s always OK, and even desirable, to throw in some “quotes” – that is, snippets of the original melody.
Your Next Jazz Improvisation Exercises
So if you’ve followed the exercises in jazz improvisation to the point – GOOD JOB! You’ve already come a long way!
You next step is to go through these exercises with several other tunes. For now, I would stick with very simple tunes, in “easy” keys which, like “Saints” are simple melodies with very easy jazz chord progressions.
When you’re comfortable with improvisation over chord changes, a good next step might be to learn the related Blues Scales and begin adding “blue notes” to your improvisation.
But that’s a topic for another post.
Thanks for reading, and please leave your comments below. 🙂