The Ultimate Motivic Cells

Motivic cells are a great way of adding structure and continuity to a composition or improvised solo, and to help avoid some of the cliches that spring from arpeggio or scale based patterns (for more info, click on the links to earlier posts shown below).  However, even motivic cells can become cliche, because the chords and scales they are often drawn from are usually quite common.  For example, the II-V-I chord progression is seen everywhere (min7th, Dom7 and Maj7th chords make up the bulk of the jazz harmonic language), so motivic cells that are drawn from this pool can be nearly as ubiquitous.  Although tunes share similar chords and harmonic motion, it is their melodies that truly differentiate one song from another, and so developing a solo or arrangement from the motivic cells imbedded in the tune’s melody can promise fresh and unique results.  Here are a few thoughts about how to explore this approach, and develop the facility to bring it into the realm of spontaneity.

Starting with a very simple three note motif from John Coltrane’s “Bessie’s Blues,” we can see that the composer is of like mind (all of this post’s examples are in concert pitch, and be clicked on for a larger view).  His three note motif based on the 3rd, Root and b7 of the opening chord (seen below in Example A) is immediately repeated in the second measure, where both the chord and motif are transposed up a perfect 4th.  Once you have identified a strong motif from the song you are learning, try playing it through the chord progression in the same way you would practice a chord or scale pattern.  The second motif I’ve chosen from this tune occurs in measures #9 and 10 (Example B), this time based on the 5th, 3rd and root of the chord.  What Coltrane has done in measure #10 though is to change up the rhythm of the motif.  This is the beauty and the fun of working with a simple cell, for it is easy to spontaneously play with the rhythms (once your brain and fingers are familiar and facile enough with the chord progression).

Ultimate Motivic Cells- A B

While these initial patterns will give you a glimpse of hearing a tune’s motif throughout the harmonic context of the tune and are relatively easy to master, they will quickly wear thin.  Just as with chord and scale patterns, the next step at introducing variety would be to invert the motif (Example C below shows the inversion of the 2nd motif over the first two measures of the progression), then you could alternate between the original and inverted motif (Example D shows the first motif, first inverted, and then in its original form over the chords of measures 10 and 11).  Although the sound of these patterns will be very predictable, they are not intended to be used in their entirety during the course of an improvised solo (which would only be predictable, and not improvised).  These are intended to make you more facile, and suggest more possibilities to your imagination.

Ultimate Motivic Cells C D

A good motivic cell is only a few notes, which would seem to induce boredom rather quickly, but the beauty in its use is in how more easily a short cell can be varied. Transposition is another tool for developing a motif, but the strength of that tool is best revealed in careful listening tests at the piano (by playing the chord in the left hand and the motif in the right).  Begin with diatonic transposition…moving the cell up or down through the scale of the moment, which will slightly alter the intervals of the cell (See Example E below, which starts with Bessie’s Blues’ first three notes over it’s opening Eb7 chord).  Some of the transpositions will be more successful (to your ears) than others, so be sure to make note of the relationships between each of the cell’s individual notes to the harmony.

Ultimate Motivic Cells E F

Chromatic transposition preserves the motif’s original intervals, but in doing so will also introduce pitches that are outside of the key or the original scale of the moment (Example F above, still over the Eb7 chord).  The arrows show transposed motifs from these two different types of transposition that share the same starting note but have a slightly different intervallic structure.  As you learn more about harmony and scale application, or as your ear becomes more sophisticated, you will find more ways of working with a motif.  Again, listening sessions at the piano are indispensable, and will not only expand your ear to the possibilities that exist, but will also exercise your mind as you move the motif through the keys and see the relationship the pitches have to the underlying harmony.

As the mind becomes more accustomed to this process of thinking, playing and hearing, it will become easier to arrange motive cells in a way that creates a larger overall phrase shape (see “Using Shapes to Improve the Structure of Improvised Solos and Compositions“).  Example G below shows the four note motif of “Autumn Leaves,” except this time arranged in a way that creates an ascending arc to the melodic form.  It is also an example of a motif that spans more than one chord.

Ultimate Motivic Cells G

Again, playing motivic cells in a literal way like this is not necessarily great music making.  What’s important is developing the ability to successfully move a cell around in a chord progression, to not only hear the cell in the tune’s various harmonic contexts, but to also develop the ability to hear these possible variations before they are even played…meaning the mind’s inner ear (the seat of our musical imagination), has a much greater palette to work with.  The use of a song’s motivic cells is a deep well to draw inspiration from, so I’ll return to the topic in a future post.

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