Rhythmic Basis of Melodic Improvisation

(I’ve just changed the title of this post, 21/03/07, as a lot of people¬†were coming¬†here looking for a popular jazz title -sorry folks!)

A lot of people fancy the idea of improvisation -they just never get started. Where do you start?

There are probably almost as many different ways of improvising as there are people, so there are many possible starting points. However, if someone doesn’t know where to start, the chances are that they think of improvisation as the effortless creation of melody and will quickly become disheartened if their efforts lack conviction and form. One can improvise melodically in many styles but almost all successful melody creation is built on a strong sense of pulse and rhythmic balance.

Experienced jazz teachers frequently start off with rhythmic ‘question and answer’ activities: the teacher plays a short rhythmic idea to which the pupil responds with one of equal length. This helps the pupil develop a feeling for phrase length which, as most Western music is structured in balanced phrases, underpins melody. The second step is for the pupil to invent the ‘question’ for the teacher to answer. Once the pupil is secure in this rhythmic invention, the rhythmic ideas are clothed with pitched notes.

Rhythmic ‘question and answer’ is a good way to get started in any style of melodic improvisation and “Answering Back” provides some simple phrases with which to work in classical or folk styles. In case pupils are tempted to ‘turn up their noses’ at the simplicity of these rhythmic schemes, I should explain that they are all taken from melodies by ‘top rank’ composers. For Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven simple was good!

4 thoughts on “Rhythmic Basis of Melodic Improvisation

  1. Audrey,

    Great article, as a jazz instructor in higher-education, I am always “stunned” by the lack of exposure with aural training by our incoming students…

    Many incoming students are good “technicians” but if you remove the “paper”, they become helpless! I wish more music teachers would start “non-visual” music training earlier! After all, music is aural!

    Great article, keep them coming!

    Joe Pisano

  2. Pingback: Limits Set Me Free! « Making Music Matters!

  3. I am a drummer, who has been improvising for over 30 years with drummers & musicians of different cultures.
    What I have found is some of the finest teachers and highly qualified symphony orchestra musicians often freeze when I ask them to play with me unrehearsed from their heart and mind. However, many uneducated gypsies, talented freelance musicians and improvisors are absolutely comfortable with this activity.
    My comment here is while it is ok to enjoy the work of Grand masters, our musicians should also be encouraged to have some degree of freedom to develop an open- minded approach to new rhythm, music and one’s own creations and start enjoying music like a bird soaring free up in the sky rather than a regimented soldier who has to follow only written music page by page and phrase by phrase.

    Hari Pal
    BC, Canada

  4. I was really pleased to read Audrey Podmore’s write-up on “Making Music Matters”, as early as Feb 17, 2007. The key areas addressed in the article were very pertinent: “Sense of pulse and rhythmic balance”, “Rhythmic question and answer” and “Answering back”. Linking melodic and rhythmic improvisation is an absolute necessity in music of any kind and I believe Audrey deserves to be recognized as a pioneer in initiating this line of thinking in the mind of conservative Jazz musicians. I was rather disappointed by the magnitude of response I see that appeared in this chain of response.
    I strongly believe that there is a need to publicize and amplify theese concepts generated by Audrey. If only it was possible in todays’s scarce funding situation, we need to organize an open forum with a series of lectures, symposia and workshops from – both Jazz as well as non Jazz- knowledgeable musicians and rhythm specialists for the benefit of students and professional musicians at large.
    Jazz has no longer the monopoly of dictating the traditional musical terms on the artists anymore. In today’s new world music era Jazz has to grow up, broaden and change from its conventional and antiquated traditions to the modern and universally acceptable ways.

    Hari Pal

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