Although it’s important to learn the spelling of a song’s chords, and their related related scales and modes, utilizing those materials creatively while improvising or composing in a way that also reflects a strong sense of form can be a quite a challenge. While trying to be “correct” there is often a feeling of playing inside a series of “boxes”…each of the measures or areas of the song defined by a specific chord and scale(s). Although the improviser may be honoring the harmonic guidelines of the moment (often known as the vertical requirements), the horizontal elements…the strength of the improvised line, often suffers. Adding to the difficulties is the need to find a solution to these challenges in the spontaneous moment, where improvisers must live. Composers wrestle with these same problems, even though they have the advantage of time, and the eraser at the end of their pencil (or in our modern era, the delete key). So how can how can we spontaneously provide a sense of structure…a framework to our creations, while still honoring both the vertical and horizontal aspects of the song?
Shapes are simple, spontaneously created lines that have a consciously controlled direction (ascending or descending) and length. The pitches of each line are chosen from the current chord or scale, and a series of these lines can serve as the underlying structure to the improvised solo. In their purest form a shape may exist only in the mind of the improviser, although the ear can hear these pitches manifesting in various ways:
- where they are part of a more complex line
- as the top note of a chord voicing
- where they are the only notes being played
Example A above, shows two simple, ascending shapes over a 12-bar Blues in C, using only the Root (1), 3rd, 5th or b7 of the chord of the moment. Except for where the second shape begins at measure #9, the next note in the sequence is always the pitch of the new chord which is closest to, and above the previous note. The strength of this line comes from:
- the singularity of its direction
- its independence from the chord progression…the line is at a different pitch with each recurring chord, and it continues to ascend even when the chord is stagnant (for example, in the first four measures the C7 chord occurs three times, yet the shape is at three different pitches, and it continues to ascend in measure 4 even though the chord does not change)
- the line conforms to the harmony
Example B, shown below is a simple, improvised solo utilizing the same shape, where the notes of the shape in Example A are circled. To listen, click here, and scroll down to “Using Shapes to Improve the Structure of Improvised Solos and Compositions,” Example B.
The solo begins by just connecting the notes of the shape, although some measures (2, 5 and 6) see a quick change in direction (down) before returning to the next higher note of the shape. By measure 7 the interval of the direction change is greater, with more notes below the pitch of the shape note, and in measure 8 the shape note is delayed, not appearing as the first note of the measure, and has a very small rhythmic value. The circled shape note in measure 10 is even approached from above All of these actions might seem to obscure the direction of the shape, but they are allowed…the rules are not that strict, for in the end the line is heard continuing to ascend. The shape is still exerting its influence. Can you hear it?
Shapes can also descend, as seen in Example C, above, and they may also use notes of the applied scale, rather than being limited to the 1, 3, 5, or 7 of the chord. They may also move more quickly than the rate the chords change (measures 7, and 9-10). A greater understanding of harmony and theory gives the improviser and composer more options to choose from, and thus a greater control over the shape…but those choices should be made wisely, for even one note can have an impact on the harmony.
Example D (above) is another improvised solo (this time based on the shape of Example C). Again the shape notes are circled, and you can listen to the solo by clicking here (PS- I forgot to circle the pitch E of the shape in measure 8). Shape notes can also be used to organize motifs…for example all of the shape notes in measures 9-12 are followed by the interval of a 6th (think of the Db in measure 11 as a C#). Note the C pedal in the bass for the first 8 measures.
Shapes can also be used as the top note of a chord voicing, which is a great way of generating fresh voicings. Example E (unlabeled, but shown directly above) uses the same shape of Examples C and D, and can be heard here: https://www.bob-gillis.com/blog-audio. Even with the pedal point on C for the first 8 measures you can hear the blues chord progression in these left hand voicings. A more chromatic shape like this demands a keener knowledge of theory and more creative ingenuity.
My mentor, Dale Bruning said that shapes were a way to avoid “following our fingers”…which is a problem shared by those who don’t have a very large musical vocabulary, or who practice patterns (scales, arpeggios, “licks,” etc.) too much (at least to the point where the patterns become the main basis for improvising). Beginning improvisers should start by just improvising shapes alone (like Examples A and C), and not just going through the process of choosing notes that honor the shape’s vertical and horizontal components, but also listening carefully to what is being created…it can be inspiring in so many ways. Also, as a general rule for anyone trying this technique, if the musical moment ever suggests (or demands) that the shape be abandoned, then by all means do so…all technique should be acquired only to serve the music. However, in practice we try and develop the discipline to create continuous shapes at will…the goal being to learn to only leave the shape as a conscious choice, rather than because of our inability.
There are a lot of ways to approach improvising and composing, and shapes can be a valuable tool in the creative musician’s toolkit.
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