Improve Your Improvisation – by Mike Overly

Improv SignHere is something surprising. Even if you know the key signature of a song, you still don’t know what key you are in. This is because one key signature represents two keys: one major key and one relative minor key. And even after analyzing a song to determine the correct key, you might not be able to improvise. This is because you still need to know what scale to play. As we will learn in this lesson, that’s not always an easy choice to make.

Let’s begin with a traditional definition of improvise, also known as extemporize. Improvise is the creative activity of immediate, in the moment, musical composition. Improvisation combines spontaneous theoretical and technical actions coupled with the communication of feelings and emotions. Improvisation may also include immediate responses to other musicians. Individual musical ideas of improvisation are united on the ground of shared harmonic changes, called chords. And because improvisation is a performative action, which depends on instrumental technique, a major component of improvisation is skill. It’s important to remember that there are musicians who have never improvised, and there are other musicians who have devoted their entire lives to improvisation.

In contrast to the above complex definition, I simply define improvise as: free to choose. By this I mean, the improvisational musician is free to choose any scale or mode that they think sounds good with any chord harmony. For this lesson, let’s simply define a mode as an altered scale. Now, what’s important to remember is that the improvisor is the authority. The improvisor plays what sHe likes, to express how sHe feels!

Improvisational music of “uncertainty” differs from traditional music of “certainty” in that improvisational music enfolds, whereas traditional music unfolds. By that I mean, traditional music begins with one scale which unfolds into many chords with certainty, whereas, improvisational music begins with one chord that enfolds many scales with uncertainty.

With this elementary beginning, we can now understand that improvisational music is the enfolding of one chord into many scales and modes. In other words, improvisation is the traditional unfolding music process reversed in an enfolded retrograde manner. Said in a different way, in traditional music the scale is known first and from that known scale you spell the harmony. In contrast, in improvisational music the harmony is known first and then you are free to choose any scale or mode that you feel sounds good with that harmony. Remember, the choice is always yours.

There are many, many scales and modes that may be played with any given chord. For example, a major chord triad contains the scale degree tone numbers 1 3 5, and any scale or mode that contains these tone numbers may be played. However, don’t forget, this is just a beginning, as there are no right or wrong sounds in improvisation – there are only sounds that you like. Said one more time, as an improvisor, you are free to choose any scale or mode you wish ~ it’s all about you!

The following are a few of the many scales and modes that you may choose to play with the major chord, tones 1 3 5 (one, three, five). At first, a scale or mode may sound unfamiliar and weird to you, that’s okay, just keep playing until that scale or mode becomes familiar. At that point, you will begin to “like it” and begin incorporating it into your improvisation.

Major pentatonic: 1 2 3 5 6
Scriabin: 1 b2 3 5 6
East Indian: 1 3 4 5 b7
Ionian mode: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Lydian mode: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
Mixolydian mode: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
Melodic minor lydian mode: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 b7
Melodic minor mixolydian mode: 1 2 3 4 5 b6 b7
Harmonic minor aeolian mode: 1 #2 3 #4 5 6 7
Hungarian major: 1 #2 3 #4 5 6 b7
Byzantine: 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 7
Hundusian: 1 2 3 4 5 b6 b7
Octotonic hybrid: 1 2 3 4 b5 5 6 7
Symmetric hybrid: 1 b2 b3 3 b5 5 6 b7
Novem hybrid: 1 2 3 4 b5 5 6 b7 7
Taurus hybrid: 1 b2 b3 3 4 5 #5 6 7
OverMoto hybrid: 1 b2 2 3 4 b5 5 b6 6 b7 7

This same improvisational approach may be applied to the minor chord, tones 1 b3 5 (one, flat three, five).

Minor pentatonic: 1 b3 4 5 b7
Balinese: 1 b2 b3 5 b6
Japanese Hiro-Joshi: 1 2 b3 5 b6
Hawaiian: 1 2 b3 5 6
Scriabin minor: 1 b2 b3 5 6
Dorian mode: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Phrygian mode: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Melodic minor ionian mode: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 7
Melodic minor dorian mode: 1 b2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Harmonic minor ionian mode: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7
Harmonic minor lydian mode: 1 2 b3 #4 5 6 b7
Natural minor ionian mode: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Natural minor lydian mode: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Natural minor mixolydian mode: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Neopolitan minor: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 7
Hungarian minor: 1 2 b3 #4 5 b6 7
Moroccan: 1 2 b3 #4 5 b6 b7
Romanian: 1 2 b3 #4 5 6 b7
Taurus hybrid: 1 b2 b3 3 4 5 #5 6 7

And finally, this improvisational approach may be applied to the suspended chord, tones 1 #3 5 (one, sharp three, five).

Scriabin: 1 b2 #3 5 6
Japanese Kumoi-Joshi: 1 b2 #3 5 b6
Japanese Kokin-Joshi: 1 b2 #3 5 b7
Korea Ujo: 1 2 #3 5 6
Egyptian: 1 2 #3 5 b7
Korea P’yongjo: 1 2 #3 5 6 b7
Pacific suspended: 1 2 #3 #4 5 6 b7
Lydian suspended: 1 2 #3 #4 5 6 7
Morollian: 1 2 #3 #4 5 b6 b7
Tarrian: 1 #2 #3 #4 5 6 7
Sharno: 1 b2 #3 #4 5 b6 b7
Diamond suspended: 1 b2 #3 #4 5 6 7
Enigmatic hybrid: 1 b2 #3 #4 5 #5 #6 7
Romanian suspended: 1 2 #3 #4 5 6 b7
Belmontian hybrid: 1 b2 2 #3 b5 5 b6 6 b7 7

As was said earlier, there are many more scales and modes that may be learned and applied to chords, so, be sure to study pages 296 and 297 of Guitar EncycloMedia to discover other choices. http://www.12tonemusic.com/guitar/encyclomedia/

‘til next time, have some improvisational fun, no matter what chord you’re playing… I’ll be listening!

www.12tonemusic.com

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