Improvisers and composers can sometimes be thought of not only as writers, but also directors, for they must select the “actors” for their production. To clarify this analogy, the improviser/composer must at some point audition all of the possible notes in the music’s harmonic contexts and assess their value in order to know what role(s) they are most suited for. In this way the “director” can fill every role with an actor that will make it shine, thereby helping to bring his musical vision to life.
These harmonic contexts are the chords of the music, which are one of the chief elements of the song’s structure. A jazz musician should not only know what the tune’s harmonic progression is, but the spelling of all of those chords and their accompanying applied scales, from it is from this pool of notes that most of the melodies (and chordal voicings) will be drawn from (just like a painter choosing from his pallet of colors). I briefly discussed these “applied” scales in the earlier post, “More Ways to Improvise Using Motivic Cells,” but think the process of hearing the scale (and singularly each of its notes) played over its chord deserved more attention. Knowing the notation language for chord symbols will not only generate the notes in the chord, but also the primary notes in the applied scales that can reflect the sound of that chord. To know the secondary notes (the scale notes in between the chord tones) in that scale of the moment takes a greater understanding of harmony, and/or a keen ear, which can be developed during this auditioning process. For those without basic keyboard skills, this is a great way to start developing them!
Example A shows a G7 chord with a C harmonic minor scale (starting on its 5th note) played on top. Also try playing the chord an octave higher (shown), especially if the lower octave sounds muddy on your piano. Depending on the musical and harmonic context, there can often be more than one scale choice over a chord…drawn from a musician’s collection of common scales and modes, hybrid scales (parts of two or more scales) and synthetic scales (custom made for the moment). Dominant 7th chords like the G7 chord probably have more scale options than any other type of chord, but that will not be addressed here. I chose this scale instead of the more common G mixolydian mode (with A and E naturals) for its more exotic sounding intervals. The point here is not to just play and listen to the scale over the chord (which is still a very important step), but to carefully listen to every note, one at a time, in the context of that chord. Even one note can have a tremendous impact over the harmony and mood of the moment (try changing to the G mixolydian mode to hear the differences), and when we know this from the experience of deep listening it is possible to refine the expressiveness of our performance into something quite personal and meaningful. Of course the intervals of the scale heard while ascending and descending also have an impact on the ears of the listener, so be attuned to those sounds as well during your auditioning process. Also try having a friend play the chords while you play the individual notes and scales on your primary instrument.
Recall when you were much younger and were first learning the meaning of a word and then using it in a sentence. The pronunciation may have been a little hesitant, or it could have taken a while to find the best time to use that word in the context of your natural way of speaking, but time and trial and error eventually allowed the new word to become an integral part of your vocabulary. A sensitive musician needs to truly hear, understand and feel what potentials a note may have in many contexts, and this auditioning process is a great place to begin. Just as with our impressions about the taste of various foods, the decisions reached here are quite personal, for although there may be a general consensus as to a note’s “flavor”, everyone will have their own opinions. And these opinions can change, just as your taste for certain foods may have changed over the years. In your mind (or even on paper), articulate your judgement of every note and context you audition as precisely as you can. Not just good/bad… consonant/dissonant, etc., or kind of good, very good, amazingly good (which is at least an improvement). Choose words that conjure up images…like brilliant, angry, enchanted, brooding, exotic, fruity, right wing conservative…words that are meaningful to you. This process will have you listening more deeply and connecting sounds to your feelings and emotions…aspects of your personality that uniquely define you. You will probably even begin to play the notes with a greater variety of expression (through dynamics or repeated attacks and rhythms) as you try to draw out more of the qualities you perceive in the note. Plus, if you are ever composing a song with lyrics about a brilliant, angry, enchanted, brooding, exotic, fruity, right wing conservative you will have the perfect note and accompanying chord for any word!
Find out how these qualities are being generated by taking out a note or notes from the chord, which will either eliminate that quality or expose the note that is combining with the scale tone on top to produce the effect. Sometimes it will be one note, other times it will be a combination of notes…a recipe of blended ingredients. You will also discover that some notes are more like filler…not much flavor to them, so they would not even be missed if left out except for making things sound a little thicker. This experimentation and deep listening becomes a creative process that can send you off on musical tangents you may not have expected. Follow your ears…follow your heart.
Just like the word “green” has several meanings depending on the words that surround it (green/ color… green/ inexperienced… green/vegetables…green/environment, etc.), the context is what not only defines the role a note can play, but how well suited a note may be for the part. Another perspective for auditioning and listening is to keep the top note the same but change the chord on the bottom. Example B has chromatically ascending Dominant 7th chords (sometimes modified by the auditioning note on top), but eventually you want to hear every possible note choice over every possible chord type. It may seem like a big job at first, but this kind of thoroughness will reap great rewards…for your ears, your piano technique, and your musical vocabulary, in turn giving you more ways to compose or develop a motif, write counterpoint, reharmonize a standard, work with lyrics, etc. in any style of music.