Free Improvisation

The next of level of freedom in improvisation is to eliminate chords entirely. Depending on how far you are willing to go, you can also dispense with traditional melody, rhythm, timbre, or form. There are many different approaches to free playing, but by its very nature, there are no rules. Instead of technical details, examples of other musicians will be used for the most part.

Many of Ornette Coleman’s compositions have no chords at all. Most of his freebop quartet recordings with Don Cherry for Atlantic fall into this category. The head consists of a melody only, and the solos are variations on the melody or on the feel of the piece in general, not on any chord progression. For the most part, these recordings still show a very melodic approach and are accessible to many listeners. A walking bass line and 4/4 swing drum beat are constant throughout, and the forms are the standard head-solos-head forms.

Ornette’s album Free Jazz, featuring a double quartet including Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard, is decidedly different. Here Ornette is not only putting aside traditional concepts of harmony, but also of melody. There is no definable head to the one performance that comprises this album, and the improvisations are less melodic than on the quartet albums. The double quartet also experiments with form on this album, often having several improvisers playing at once. This idea is as old as jazz itself, but was largely forgotten with the advent of the swing era. The free players’ idea of collective improvisation is much less structured than the dixieland players’, and the results are more cacophonous.

John Coltrane made similar advances late in his career, in albums such as “Ascension”. Coltrane also experimented with rhythm, especially in albums like “Interstellar Space” that do not feature any definable pulse. Both Coleman and Coltrane, as well as musicians influenced by them such as Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, also experimented with timbre, finding new ways to get sounds out of their instruments, even to the extent of playing instruments on which they had little or no training, as Ornette did with the trumpet and the violin.

Cecil Taylor plays the piano in a completely free manner, utilizing it as much as a percussion instrument as a melodic or chordal instrument. His performances generally do not contain any traditional harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic structuring elements. He creates his own structures. When playing free music in a solo setting, you have complete freedom to change the directions of the music at any time, and are accountable only to yourself. You can change tempo, you can play without tempo, you can vary the intensity of your performance as you see fit. When playing music with no set form in a group setting, communication becomes especially important, because there is no automatic frame of reference to keep everyone together. Cecil Taylor does play in a group setting as well, and other groups such as the Art Ensemble Of Chicago are known for this type of freedom.

It is hard to analyze these styles of music in terms we are accustomed to using. The music must reach us on an emotional level in order to be successful, and each person’s emotions may be affected differently. It often seems to be that the more free the music, the more intensely personal the statement. You will need to decide for yourself how far you are willing to go in your own playing, as well as in your own listening. You should also be aware that this type of music is often more fun to play than to listen to for many people. The challenge of the communication and the excitement of the free exchange of ideas are things that some listeners are unable to appreciate. This a gentle way of saying that your experimentation may alienate some of your original audience. However, there are audiences that do appreciate this music. You should not be discouraged from playing as freely as you desire.

Non-tonal Improvisation

The terms pan-tonal, non-tonal, and atonal all describe the blurring or elimination of traditional tonality. The distinction between these terms is not always clear, so I will use most general of these, “non-tonal”, to describe music that has no specific key center, or over which standard chord/scale relationships do not always apply.

Although non-tonal music may appear to have chord progressions, the individual chords are often chosen for their overall sound rather than for their resolutions. Any chord from any key is likely to be used if it has the right sound. For example, many of the tunes on Miles’ albums E.S.P., Nefertiti, Miles Smiles, and Sorcerer have no specific key centers, nor do they contain many traditional ii-V’s that would indicate temporary key centers. Many of the chords are relatively complex, for example Abmaj7#5, and each chord is chosen for its individual sound, not because the previous chord resolves to it naturally or because it resolves to the next chord. A traditional functional analysis of the harmony (that is, analyzing chords in terms of their relationship to the key) is not always the best way to approach this sort of music.

You may wish to treat this music modally, and let the chords themselves dictate the scale choices. You should be careful in doing this, however. Many of the standard chord/scale relationships were established with traditional resolutions in mind. Your phrases may seem random and disconnected if you blindly change scales according to the chord progression in non-tonal music. You should be prepared to treat the chord/scale relationships more loosely than you would when simply playing changes.

In tonal music, alterations to a chord are often considered merely color tones that do not affect the basic function of a chord, and improvisers are free to make their own alterations to the basic chord. For example, a G7b9 chord is likely to be a dominant chord, resolving to Cmaj7. Any other chord that serves this function, such as G7#11, or even a tritone substitution like Db7, can be used instead without radically changing how the phrase is perceived, so tonal improvisers will often make this sort or alteration freely, either explicitly, or implicitly by their scales choices. In non-tonal music, however, a chord is often specifically called for because of its unique sound, and not because of how it functions in a progression. The same G7b9 chord may have been chosen because of the particular dissonance of the G against the Ab, or because that happened to be the most convenient way to spell the chord voicing the composer intended (a voicing is simply a way of specifying the particular notes to be played for a given chord). Changing this chord to G7#11 may change the sound of the chord more radically than substituting an otherwise unrelated chord that has the same G/Ab dissonance, such as Abmaj7, or one that may be voiced similarly, such as E7#9. You may find scale choices associated with these chords to be more appropriate substitutions than ones based on the traditional dominant function of G7b9.

The real intent of non-tonal music, however, is to free you from the specifics of chord/scale relationships and allow you to concentrate on the sounds themselves. The lines you play need not be analyzed in terms of their relationships to the notated chords, but may instead be thought of in terms of how they fit the sound of the phrase at that point. If the chord in a given measure is a maj7#5 chord, then you should hear the sound of that chord, and feel free to play any lines that imply that sound. This is as much an emotional implication as a rational one. For me, that particular chord has an open, questioning, sound that I associate with wide intervals and the use of rhythmic space. I would probably tend to play lines that reflect this feeling, regardless of the actual notes involved. Furthermore, the sound of that chord may also be affected by its context in the piece itself. For instance, a chord played for two measure in a ballad may sound entirely differently from the same chord used as an accent in a driving up-tempo piece. Chord scale relationships may still help define which notes tend to be more or less dissonant against a given chord, but you should try organize your thinking along lines of sounds, and use the chord/scale relationships only as tools to help you achieve the desired sounds.

Even in tonal music, of course, chord/scale relationships can be considered as tools, and one could claim the goal is always to represent sounds. However, you may find tunes with many ii-V’s in them tend to “sound” the same in this respect. Non-tonal music was created to provide a more varied palette of sounds, to encourage thinking along these lines. As with chromaticism in tonal music, you can deliberately play lines that contradict the sound of the chord, if that is the effect you desire. The important thing is that you perceive a non-tonal chord progression as a recipe of sounds over which you improvise, not as a specific pattern of chord resolutions.


Bebop styles were characterized above as exploiting the harmonies by choosing scales with a lot of color tones, whereas modal playing was characterized as emphasizing the basic chord tones. Both of these approaches still use chord/scale relationships in the traditional manner of choosing a scale that implies the sound of the chord to some degree, and playing mostly within that scale. Another approach is to maintain the sense of chord progressions but play lines that lie largely outside the associated scales. This is sometimes called chromaticism. Eric Dolphy used this approach when playing with Charles Mingus and on some of his own albums such as Live At The Five Spot and Last Date. Woody Shaw and Steve Coleman are also chromatic players.

You have by now probably played some outside notes, say an Ab against a Cmaj7 chord, possibly by accident. These notes may sound wrong when played in the context of an otherwise inside melody. By playing a melody derived from a scale, you establish a particular sound, and one wrong note will sound out of place. However, when playing a melody that lies mostly outside the scale, the same notes may fit in much more logically. That is to say, non-scale tones used melodically can often sound consonant (the opposite of dissonant).

The aforementioned musicians often play very angular melodic lines, meaning they consist of large or unusual intervals and change direction often rather than being primarily stepwise and scalelike. This often seems to establish a sound in which wrong notes sound perfectly natural. Interestingly, the opposite approach works as well: lines that contain a lot of half steps often sound right even though they consist of many wrong notes. These lines are sometimes called chromatic.

You can continue to use your knowledge of chord/scale relationships when playing chromatically. For example, you know that a Db lydian scale is not normally an appropriate choice to play over a Cmaj7 chord, and you probably have some idea why. These same wrong notes, however, if used melodically over the chord, create a sound that is not all that dissonant and has a harmonic richness that is very modern sounding. In fact, even simple melodic ideas like arpeggios and scales can sound complex in this context.

You can practice these ideas with Aebersold albums, or Band-In-A-Box, or your fellow musicians, although you should be prepared for some strange looks. It has been said that there are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions. This certainly explains why passing tones and enclosures sound consonant, but I feel it still places too high a value on playing the notes suggested by the standard chord/scale relationships. I would restate this; the only wrong notes are notes you didn’t intend to play. Any note you play is right if it is in a meaningful context and it does not sound like an accident. There is even value in making mistakes. The trick is in forming a coherent whole.

Modal Improvisation

A typical modal tune may have only two or three chords, and each may last 8 or even 16 measures. In one sense, modal playing is much easier than playing changes, since it does not require your brain to do as much fast computation to constantly change scales. In another sense, however, it is more challenging, since you cannot merely string together rehearsed ii-V licks, nor can you rely on clever scale use and chord substitution to cover up basic problems thinking melodically.

Some music is often considered modal even though it follows traditional chord progressions such as the blues. The concept of modality has as much to do with what is done with the harmony as with its rate of change. In bebop derived styles, a soloist may sustain interest by his choice of notes over the harmony, including dissonances, tensions, and releases. For example, bebop players often enjoyed ending phrases on the raised fourth over a dominant chord, just for the effect that one note had. When soloing over modal music, there is less emphasis on harmonic choices, and more on melodic development. The ballad “Blue In Green” from Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue has as much harmonic motion as many other tunes, and the chords themselves are relatively complex chords such as Bbmaj7#11 or A7alt. Yet the solos on this track do not exploit the harmony; instead they focus on melodicism of individual phrases. Bebop improvisers may emphasize the chordal extensions in their solos, whereas modal improvisers tend to emphasize basic chord notes. Bebop players are often more inclined to fill up all spaces with notes to completely define the harmony, whereas modal players are more likely to use rhythmic space as a melodic structuring element. Both approaches are valid, but it is important to understand the differences between them.

The Miles Davis tune “So What” on the album Kind Of Blue is the classic example of a modal tune. It follows a basic AABA structure, where the A section consists of the D dorian mode, and the B section consists of the Eb dorian mode. This yields 16 consecutive bars of D dorian at the beginning of each chorus; 24 counting the last 8 of the previous chorus. You may find yourself running out of ideas quickly if you limit yourself to just the seven notes in the D dorian scale, but that is the challenge. You cannot rely on the consciously hip sound of an F# over a C7 chord; you must play melodically with the notes you are given.

You are not completely restricted to the notes of the scale, however. As with ii-V progressions, there are some devices that you can use in a modal setting to add tension. One of the most popular of such devices is called sideslipping. Over a D dorian background, try playing lines based on Db or Eb scales for a measure or two. This dissonance creates a tension, which you can release by returning to the original scale. You can also use chromatic passing tones. For instance, over a D dorian scale, you might try playing “G, G#, A”, where the G# is a passing tone.

You can also vary the scale used. For instance, instead of D dorian, try a D natural minor, or a D minor pentatonic, for a few measures. You can also alternate a tonic chord with the dominant seventh chord in that key. For example, the chord associated with D dorian is Dm7. If you treat that as a i chord, the V7 chord is A7. So you can use lines from any of the scales associated with A7, A7b9b5, A7alt, or other A dominant seventh chords, at points in your improvisation. This will create a kind of tension that you can resolve by returning to the original D dorian scale.

For the most part, however, you should try to stick to the modal philosophy when playing modal tunes, and concentrate on being as melodic as possible with the basic chord and scale tones. Pentatonic scales are an especially appropriate choice in modal playing, since they narrow your choices to only five notes instead of seven, and further force you to think about using space and playing melodically. A similar sound is achieved by playing lines built from the interval of a fourth. This is called quartal harmony. It is particularly effective in modal tunes with few chord changes, although these types of lines can be used in other situations as well.

Playing Changes

Once you have some idea of the association between chord symbols and scales, and how to develop a melodic line, you can start improvising over chord progressions. In performance situations, the rhythm section will be outlining the chord progressions in tempo, while you play improvised lines based on the associated scales. Often the chords will change every measure, and you must keep changing scales to keep up. However, you should not think one chord at a time. You should be trying to construct lines that lead from one chord to the next.

The third and seventh of each chord are the notes that most define the sound of the chord. If you emphasize these notes in your improvisation, it will help guarantee that your lines will accurately imply the changes. Conversely, if you emphasize the other scale tones, it can add a harmonic richness to the sounds. You are also free to use notes not in the scale at all. Bebop players often use a device called the enclosure, in which a target note is preceded by notes a half step above and below. This is related to the idea of a passing tone, except in the enclosure, the chromaticism is used to emphasize or delay a particular note rather than to connect two other notes. Other non-scale tones can be used as you see fit.

While there are many possible chord progressions, there are a few basic building blocks that account for many of the chord changes you will see. If you become familiar with these basics, you will be well on your way to being able to play over any set of changes that might come your way. Performers should practice the chord progressions described below in all twelve keys to gain the most fluency. You may wish to try out some specific patterns on these progressions, but more importantly, you should simply explore many different ideas on each progression in each key so you will be comfortable truly improvising on them, rather than just playing the licks with which you are comfortable in that key. You should experiment with different approaches and learn how to tailor your note choices for a given chord type in a given situation for the sound you are trying to achieve.

In addition to reading about these concepts you should try to listen specifically for these techniques being applied by other musicians. The most popular jazz musicians of the 1950’s make a good starting point. These include Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Art Pepper, Red Garland, Hank Jones, Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, Paul Chambers, and Ray Brown. Any albums from that time period featuring one or more of these musicians are recommended for learning about playing changes.


The most important chord progression in jazz is the ii-V, which may or may not resolve to I. Most tunes will have ii-V progressions in several different keys sprinkled throughout. For example, consider the chord progression:

| Cmaj7 | Dm7 G7 | Em7 | A7  | Dm7 | G7  | Cmaj7 |.

There are three ii-V progressions here. Bar two forms a ii-V in the key of C, although there is no actual C (I) chord in bar three. Bars three through five form a ii-V-I in the key of D minor, and bars five through seven form a ii-V-I in C again. There are many devices that can be used when playing over ii-V progressions. Some of these are described below.

Major Keys

In a major key, the ii-V-I progression consists of a minor seventh chord, a dominant seventh chord, and a major seventh chord. The first scale choices you learned for these chords are dorian, mixolydian, and major. In the key of C, the chords are Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7, and the associated scales would thus be D dorian, G mixolydian, and C major. As you may have noticed, these are all modes of the same C major scale. Thus when you see a ii-V progression in a major key, you can play the major scale of the I chord for the whole progression. This makes it somewhat easier to construct lines that lead from one chord to the next, or transcend the individual chords. This type of progression, where the scales associated with each of the chords are all modes of each other, is called a diatonic progression. While diatonic progressions are easy to play over, they can quickly become boring, since you are playing the same seven notes for an extended period of time. You can add a little variety by using one of the other scales associated with each chord, such as D minor, G dominant bebop, C lydian.

The most common way to add interest to a ii-V progression is to alter the dominant (V) chord. Often the alteration will already be specified for you, but even when it is not, you generally have the freedom to add alterations to dominant chords. It helps if the soloist and the accompanists are playing the same alterations, but this is not always practical when improvising unless your accompanist has incredible ears and can hear the alterations you are making, and in any case it is not actually all that important.

In the key of C, you might replace the G7 chord with a G7#11, a G7alt, a G7b9b5, or a G7+ chord, all of which still fulfill the dominant function in C but imply different scales. For instance, if you choose G7#11, the progression then becomes D dorian, G lydian dominant, C major.

Another possible alteration to the dominant is called the tritone substitution. This means replacing the dominant chord with a dominant seventh chord a tritone away. In the key of C, this would mean replacing the G7 with a Db7. This may seem a strange thing to do, but there are some very good reasons why it works. The third and seventh of a chord are the two most important notes in defining the sound and function of the chord. If you look at a Db7 chord, you will see it contains Db, F, Ab, and B, which are respectively the b5, 7, b9, and 3 of a G7 chord. The third and seventh of the G7 chord (B and F) become the seventh and third of the Db7 chord. Thus, Db7 is very similar to a G7b9b5 chord in sound and function. Furthermore, the melodic resolution of Db to C in the bass is very strong, functioning almost as a passing tone.

Once you have made the chord substitution, you can then play any scale associated with the Db7 chord, for instance yielding a progression of D dorian, Db mixolydian, C major. Using a scale other than mixolydian will yield some surprising things. Try a Db lydian dominant scale, which implies a Db7#11 chord for the substitute dominant. Does this look or sound familiar? It should, because the Db lydian dominant and G altered scales are both modes of the same Ab melodic minor scale. When you play lines based on Db lydian dominant, you are playing lines that are also compatible with G altered. Conversely, Db altered and G lydian dominant are both modes of the same D melodic minor scale, and can be used interchangeably. Furthermore, the Db and G HW diminished scales are identical, as are the respective whole tone scales. These are other reasons the tritone substitution works so well.

Minor Keys

ii-V progressions in a minor key generally do not suffer the problem of sounding too diatonic. Since the harmonic minor is normally used to generate chord progressions in a minor key, a ii-V progression in A minor might consist of | Bm7b5 E7 | Am-maj7 |. If we try to build a ninth chord from the E7, we see the that the F natural in the key of A harmonic minor generates an E7b9 chord. Without any special alterations, this progression could imply B locrian, E HW diminished, and A melodic minor. These scales are sufficiently rich that further alterations are not necessary.

However, most of the same techniques from major keys can be used in a minor key as well. We can use the melodic or harmonic minor scales from the i chord, or the major bebop scale from its relative major, over the entire progression. We can use a different variation of the E7 chord such as E7alt or E7+, or even E7sus; we can make a tritone substitution to yield Bb7; and so on. We can also substitute for the ii chords, for example using the locrian #2 scale, or replacing the Bm7b5 with an ordinary Bm7 chord, where the F# comes from the key of A melodic rather than A harmonic minor. If we were to make a ninth chord, the C natural in the key of A melodic minor generates a Bm7b9 chord, which implies a B phrygian scale. We can even replace the ii Bm chord with a II B7 chord, especially a B7alt chord, which contains the D natural from the Bm chord. We can also alter the i chord, replacing it with a simple Am7 chord, and using any of the various possible scales associated with that chord such as A minor, A phrygian, A minor pentatonic, and so on.


The term “blues” is somewhat overloaded, describing a general style of music and a more specific category of chord progressions, as well as its colloquial meaning of a particular mood, as in the phrase “I’ve got the blues”. The blues as a style has a rich history that is beyond the scope of this primer. The basic twelve bar blues form was mentioned earlier. In its original form, still played often in rock and R&B music, only three chords are used: the I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord. The basic blues progression is:

|| I  | I  | I  | I  |         which,       || F  | F  | F  | F  |
 | IV | IV | I  | I  |    in the key of F,   | Bb | Bb | F  | F  |
 | V  | IV | I  | I  ||        yields:       | C  | Bb | F  | F  ||.

The chords are usually all played as dominant seventh chords, although they are not actually functioning as dominant chords in that they do not resolve to a tonic. The F blues scale can be played over this entire progression. While the blues progression can be played in any key, the most popular keys among jazz musicians seem to be F, Bb, and Eb, whereas rock musicians often prefer E, A, D, or G. This has a lot to do with the way instruments are tuned. Popular jazz instruments such as the trumpet and the various members of the saxophone family are usually tuned in Bb or Eb, meaning that the notated “C” played on these instruments actually sounds like a Bb or Eb respectively. Music written for these instruments is therefore transposed. The fingerings for the instruments favors playing in the key of C, which is actually Bb or Eb, depending on the instrument. Guitars tend to dominate rock music, and guitars are tuned to favor the keys containing sharps.

Playing the blues scale over the basic three chord blues progression in a jazz setting gets old very quickly. Starting around the swing era, and most notably in the bebop era, musicians began to make additions to this simple formula. One common adaptation of the blues progression, which is still considered the standard for jazz jam sessions, is:

|| F7   | Bb7  | F7   | F7    |
 | Bb7  | Bb7  | F7   | D7alt |
 | Gm7  | C7   | F7   | C7    |.

This progression offers a wider range of scale possibilities than does the basic three chord blues. For example, bars 8 and 9 form a V-i in G minor, and bars 9-11 form a ii-V-I in F.

The idea of adding ii-V’s to the blues progression yields more variations. For example, consider:

|| F7     | Bb7    | F7        | Cm7   F7    |
 | Bb7    | Bdim   | F7        | Am7b5 D7alt |
 | Gm7    | C7alt  | F7  D7alt | Gm7   C7alt |.

This particular progression is especially common in bebop and later styles. Note the substitution of a Bb ii-V-I in bars 4-5, a G minor ii-V-i in bars 8-9, and a G minor V-i in bars 11-12. Also note the diminished chord in bar
6. This diminished chord is serving as a substitute for the dominant seventh, since both Bdim and Bb7b9 share the same Bb HW (B WH) diminished scale. This same substitution can be made for the second half of bar 2.

Other variations can be made using tritone substitutions. For example, Ab7 can be played instead of D7alt in the second half of bar 8. You can also change the qualities of the chords, for instance replacing that Ab7 with an Abm7. Another common substitution is A7alt for the F7 in bar 11. This substitution works because the chords share several notes, including the tonic, F, and because the A7alt forms part of a G minor II-V-i progression with the D7alt and Gm7 that follow.

Charlie Parker carried these types of substitutions to an extreme in “Blues For Alice”. The chord progression in that tune is:

|| Fmaj7  | Em7b5 A7b9 | Dm7   G7    | Cm7   F7  |
 | Bb7    | Bbm7  Eb7  | Am7   D7    | Abm7  Db7 |
 | Gm7    | C7         | Fmaj7 D7alt | Gm7   C7  |.

This uses most of the techniques described above. You may wish to play with this progression for a while.

Rhythm Changes

The George Gershwin song “I Got Rhythm” is the source for one of the most popular chord progressions of the bebop era, second only to the blues progression. This form is often called simply rhythm changes. As with the blues progression, there are many possible variations on rhythm changes. Most tunes based on rhythm changes are played in the key of Bb, and are played at very fast tempos, often well over 200 beats per minute. These songs have a 32 bar AABA form based on the chord progression:

A || Bbmaj7 G7  | Cm7    F7  | Bbmaj7 G7 | Cm7   F7  |
   | Fm7    Bb7 | Ebmaj7 Ab7 | Dm7    G7 | Cm7   F7  ||

A || Bbmaj7 G7  | Cm7    F7  | Bbmaj7 G7 | Cm7   F7  |
   | Fm7    Bb7 | Ebmaj7 Ab7 | Cm7    F7 | Bbmaj7    ||

B || Am7        | D7         | Dm7       | G7        |
   | Gm7        | C7         | Cm7       | F7        ||

A || Bbmaj7 G7  | Cm7    F7  | Bbmaj7 G7 | Cm7   F7  |
   | Fm7    Bb7 | Ebmaj7 Ab7 | Cm7    F7 | Bbmaj7    ||

This progression contains many ii-V progressions. Any of the standard alterations described under ii-V progressions above can be used when playing rhythm changes. Many tunes contain slight alterations to this basic progression, especially in the last four measures of the A sections. Some of the common alterations are to replace the second chord G7 with a diminished chord Bdim, or to replace the fifth chord Bbmaj7 with Dm7. The former substitution has already been described under the diminished scale. The latter replaces a I chord with a iii chord, which has three of four notes in common, and the respective scales differ by only one note. Furthermore, the Dm7 and following G7 form a ii-V in C minor, so this is an especially strong substitution harmonically.

The important characteristics of rhythm changes are the repeated I-VI-ii-V (or substitutes) in the first four bars of the A sections, and the basic tonality movements by fifths in the bridge, leading back to the original tonic in the last A section. If you intend to become an improvising musician, you should become fluent in the basic rhythm changes, particularly in the key of Bb, and become familiar with the particular variations associated with specific tunes. This is also a good opportunity to try out what you have learned about ii-V’s, and to work on you up tempo playing.

Coltrane Changes

John Coltrane, through original compositions such as “Giant Steps” and “Countdown” on the album Giant Steps, and arrangements of standards such as “But Not For Me” on the album My Favorite Things, became known for using a particularly complex progression that is often called the Coltrane changes, although he was not the first or only musician to make use of it.

The primary characteristic of Coltrane changes is tonality movement by major thirds. The progression to “Giant Steps” is:

|| Bmaj7  D7  | Gmaj7  Bb7 | Ebmaj7    | Am7   D7   |
 | Gmaj7  Bb7 | Ebmaj7 F#7 | Bmaj7     | Fm7   Bb7  |
 | Ebmaj7     | Am7    D7  | Gmaj7     | C#m7  F#7  | 
 | Bmaj7      | Fm7    Bb7 | Ebmaj7    | C#m7  F#7  ||

The first key center here is B, then G, then Eb, and it continues to cycle through these three keys, which are a major third apart.

Coltrane was able to develop this idea in many ways. For example, he used it as a substitute for an ordinary ii-V progression. The progression to “Countdown” is loosely based on that to the Miles Davis composition “Tune-up”. The latter tune begins with the four measure progression:

| Em7    | A7         | Dmaj7     | Dmaj7 |,

which is a vanilla ii-V-I progression in D major. The first four bars of “Countdown” are:

| Em7 F7 | Bbmaj7 Db7 | Gbmaj7 A7 | Dmaj7 |.

Coltrane starts with the same ii chord, and then modulates to the dominant seventh chord one half step higher. From there, he launches into the cycle of major thirds, going from the key of Bb to Gb and finally back to D. The next four bars of the tune are identical harmonically, except they are based on a ii-V in the key of C; the next four bars are the same in the key of Bb.

Soloing over Coltrane changes can be challenging, since the apparent key center changes so often. You cannot simply play a single diatonic scale across several measures. The tunes are usually played at fast tempos, and it is also easy to fall into the trap of playing nothing but arpeggios outlining the chords. You must try to be especially conscious of playing melodically when soloing over a progression as complex as the Coltrane changes.

Melodic Development

One of your prime concerns should be playing melodically. This does not necessarily mean playing prettily, but there should be some sense of continuity to your lines, and they should be interesting in themselves. You should also be conscious of the rhythmic and harmonic development of your improvisations; I include these concepts in the term “melodic development”. This is hard to teach, and is probably the aspect of improvisation that requires the most creativity. Anyone can learn chord/scale relationships; it is what you do with this knowledge that determines how you sound. Hal Crook’s book How To Improvise has a lot of information on melodic development, especially on rhythmic variation, geared toward the intermediate player, while George Russell’s The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization For Improvisation and David Liebman’s A Chromatic Approach To Jazz Harmony And Melody contain advanced and very technical discussions on harmonic development.


You should be aware of the contour of your solo. A common way to structure a solo is based on the model of telling a story. You start simply, build through a series of smaller peaks to a climax, and then come to a concluding phrase. This works well in most situations. However, you may wish to vary from this format occasionally. You can decide to start more strongly to introduce your solo, or you may wish to finish right at the climax and forego the denoument. You may wish to keep the entire solo at a low intensity level to convey a lazy feel, although you probably don’t want to bore the listeners, either. You may wish to keep the intensity level at a controlled simmer. Much like a standup comic working a room, you may want to alter your strategies as you assess the mood of the audience. You should strive to be in control of the emotional response you generate in your listeners.

There are some common devices that can be used in structuring your solo. One of the most important is repetition. After a soloist plays a phrase, he often repeats it, or a variation of it. Often the phrase, or a variation of it, is played three times before moving on to something else. The variation might be to transpose the phrase, or to alter key notes within it to conform to a new chord/scale. The variation might consist simply of starting the phrase at a different point in the measure, such as on beat three instead of on beat two. The phrase itself may be altered rhythmically, either by playing it faster or slower.

Related to the idea of repetition is the concept of call and response. Rather than repeat the original phrase, you can consider the phrase as a question or call, and follow it up with an answer or response. This is the musical analogue to asking, “did you go to the store today?”, and then responding “yes, I went to the store today”.

On most instruments, you can increase intensity by playing louder, higher, and faster; playing softer, lower, and slower usually reduces intensity. Playing simple rhythms such as quarter notes and eighth notes where the accents fall on the beats is usually less intense than playing more complex rhythms such as syncopated rhythms, where most accents fall off the beat. A hemiola is a particular type of rhythmic device where one meter is superimposed on another. An example of this is the use of quarter note triplets when playing in 4/4 time.

One long held note can also generate intensity on most instruments, although pianists may have to use trills or rollings octaves to achieve this type of sustain. A single note or short lick repeated over and over can generate a similar sort of intensity. You have to use your judgement in deciding how much is enough.

Phrase Construction

The relationships between chords and scales should not be seen as limiting or determining your choice of notes. They are merely an aid, a way to help you relate ideas you may have to fingerings on your instrument. Your ideas should not be dictated by the scales, however. Note that very few jazz singers use scales extensively; they generally are able to translate an idea more directly into their voices. For this reason, instrumentalists should practice improvisation by singing, in addition to practicing their instruments. No matter how untrained your voice may be, it is more natural to you than your instrument, so you may find you are able to develop ideas better by singing them than by attempting to play them. Singers also are usually limited in their ability to sing complex harmonic ideas, however, because they do not have well-practiced fingerings to fall back on. Scale theory can indeed be a source of ideas; just make sure it is not your only source.

Try playing scalar lines that are based mostly on steps, angular lines that are based mostly on leaps, as well as lines that combine these approaches. In addition to being concerned over your choice of notes, you try to vary the rhythmic content of your ideas. Beginning improvisers often unwittingly play almost all their phrases with just a few underlying rhythms. Try playing lines that are based mostly on half notes and quarter notes, lines that are based mostly on eighth notes and triplets, as well as lines that combine the two approaches.

Applying The Theory To Improvisation

The basis of traditional forms of improvisation is to create spontaneously and play melodies that are built on the basic chord progression of the song. At the most basic levels, the notes you choose for your improvisation are partially dictated by the scale associated with each chord. This is called playing changes. More advanced forms of improvisation give the performer more melodic and harmonic freedom, either by reducing the number of chord changes, or by making the chords progressions more ambiguous in tonality, to the point of eliminating these structures entirely. These approaches are discussed separately below.

Pianists, guitarists, or other instrumentalists who accompany themselves while improvising should read the section on accompanying along with this section and try to apply both sets of concepts at once when improvising.

Chord/Scale Chart

The accompanying chart lists the most commonly occurring chords in jazz harmony along with the scales normally associated with each. The chords are grouped into the four basic categories of major, minor, dominant, and half diminished. In a pinch, any scale from any chord in any one of these categories can be used for any other chord in that category. There is an additional category for miscellaneous chords at the end. There are many more possible scales and chords. However, these are the most important ones in traditional jazz harmony.

        Chord                                 Scale

                       C major, C lydian, C major bebop
 Cmaj7, Cmaj9, C6, C   C major pentatonic, G major pentatonic

 Cmaj7#11              C lydian, B in sen

                       C dorian, C minor bebop, C minor pentatonic
 Cm7, Cm9, Cm11, Cm    F major pentatonic, Bb major pentatonic
                       Eb major bebop, C blues, C minor

                       C dorian, C melodic minor, C minor pentatonic,
 Cm6, Cm               F major pentatonic, Bb major pentatonic,
                       C minor bebop, Eb major bebop, D in sen

 Cm-maj7               C melodic minor, C harmonic minor, Eb major bebop

 Cm7b6                 C minor, Ab major pentatonic

 Cm7b9                 C phrygian, C phrygian #6

                       C mixolydian, C lydian dominant, C dominant bebop,
 C7, C9, C13, C        C blues, C major pentatonic

 C7sus, Csus, C11      C mixolydian
 Bb/C, Gm7/C           C suspended pentatonic, F major pentatonic

 C7#11, C7             C lydian dominant

 C7alt, C7#9#5, C7#9   C altered, F harmonic minor, F melodic minor

 C7b9b5, C7b9          C HW diminished, F harmonic minor, F melodic minor

 C7aug, C7+, C7#5      C whole tone

 Cm7b5                 C locrian #2, C locrian

 Cdim7                 C WH diminished

                       C phrygian, C phrygian #6, C Spanish phrygian
 Cphryg                C in sen

 Cmaj7#5               C lydian augmented, C major bebop

 C7susb9               C phrygian #6, C phrygian