To address this lesson requires a good knowledge of all the previously studied scales (major, harmonic minor and melodic minor) , and this over the entire range of your instrument .


- You have to work in slow tempo at first, because it takes an EXTREME rigour , you must never play a wrong note !

- A musician who can play in an elegant and melodic way on one chord , has good chance to play well when the chords become more complicated, with changes of tonalities .

- There are not many really difficult pieces if one slows down the tempo.

- Never let your fingers run faster than thought. Improvisation is a question of control over you and over the music. Never lose that control as much as possible.

- Of course you have to listen to a lot of music and try to dissect the music and style of music that you love the most ! Do not hesitate from time to time trying to transcribe a chords sequence or a musical phrase that you particularly appreciate . That’s never a waste of time!


We'll start improvising without beginning from nowhere.

Indeed, the fault of the beginners is to improvise on a scale with no direction , it invariably results in little melodic or even ugly phrases .

We will start slowly with only few notes, many pauses (pauses are not the enemy of improvisation, it’s the contrary!) And we’ll try to always think what we play and what we will play at the moment after ( to anticipate ).

This is to gradually develop the harmonic and rhythmic ear, also develop a sense of anticipation, which is very important.

- In the first instance , we will study the improvisation on only one chord (simplest case)

- Then we will address the chords progressions in a same tonality (this means we will play on only one scale, as for improvisation on a single chord )

- And finally, we'll study the improvisation on chords progressions with several tonalities changes (the usual case of jazz standards, for example), and for that , we must know how to do a proper harmonic analysis of a song, we must also be at ease with all the important scales (major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, diminished) .

Note that we're working with an automatic accompaniment software, Band-in-a-Box, that it is wise to acquire because it will serve you throughout all your life as a musician.

Another important thing is Transcribe software, which helps to slow the tempo of a music without modifying the pitch , what is important to dissect passages with difficult phrases.

Anyway, the doc below contain bass-drums accompaniments ( rhythmic sections ) on which you will practice. I play just to give you ideas and to show how it must sound , but it's up to you to practice on those accompaniments for months (all the great musicians have do that ! ), searching for ideas and melodic phrasing ...

You must transcribe at times, phrases that you like or want to understand ( carefule ! Not all the phrases your favorite musicians play are fully understandable, there are many irrational things in all musics!)


We'll start by working on a group of two consecutive notes that we will randomly place on a musical accompaniment with only one chord (C major here, all our work will happen at this stage on the major scale, which is the most important scale ). Each time , we choose randomly a note of the scale and then plays the second corresponding note :

- Two notes separated by a third (doc15)
Careful ! The third will be major or minor, according to the first note, that to stay in the packet of notes of the C major scale. In the mp3 of doc15, at the beginning, i show you all possible thirds in the scale of C major .

- 2 adjacent notes (doc16)

- 2 notes separated by a quart of 2 ½ tons (doc17)

- 2 notes separated by a sixth of 4 ½ tons (doc18)

We go to work on group of three consecutive notes, randomly placed on rhythmic section playing C major:

- 3 adjacent notes (doc19)

- 3 notes in the form of tonic-third-fifth which are "triads": therefore we will get C E G , D F A , E G B , F A C , G B D , A C E and finally B D F (doc20)

We go to work in groups of four consecutive notes, randomly placed on rhythmic section playing C major:

- 4 adjacent notes (doc21)

- 4 notes in the form of tonic- second-third-fifth , therefore we will get C D E G , D E F A , E F G B , F G A C , G A B D , A B C E, and finally B C D F (doc22)

- 4 adjacent notes on the pentatonic scale of C major : C D E G A

This gives a very "modern jazz" sound ! (doc23)

Obviously, all these exercises are to be practiced in all keys, once you begin to master properly that of C major.

Train yourself also to improvise on a rhythmic section playing a minor chord: all exercises in C major will be valid for example on D minor ( degree II of C major = Dorian mode ) or A minor ( degree VI of C major ) .

These are tools to develop your rhythmic and harmonic ear , your discipline , your control over your actions and even your patience since at first it will be a bit boring perhaps!

By dint of practicing these exercises, you will hear things, do not hesitate to play snatches of melodies that you will feel and that will certainly be related to music that you're used to listen and to love.

The goal is obviously to gradually come out of a schoolish play produced by these tools , and to let your creativity grow without having caught bad faults at the beginning .


Consider, for example, the following chords progression :

F G7 C D- G7

The first thing is to find the tonality or those whose these chords are part.

For this, we will use a property of the major scale: only his fifth degree is a X7 chord type , X designating any tonic .

So if we consider in our example that G7 is the fifth degree of a major scale , it suffices to add 2 ½ tones (or subtract 3 ½ tones ) to find the degree I ( here we get C )

Is this chords progression resulting from the C major scale ?

Let’s check :

F corresponds to the degree IV of the C major scale

G7 is the degree V of the C major scale

D- corresponds to the degree II of the C major scale

It is therefore a chords progression based on the C major scale .

We can say that it is in the tonality of C major.

The only right notes that can be played on this progression (in an accompaniment or improvisation) are those of the C major scale, ie C D E F G A and B

As for improvisation on one chord, again, we will use some tools :

What to do with these C D E F G A B notes, on the chords that scroll ?

How to play coherent and melodic phrases in our improvisation ?

Well, we'll follow a basic rule, which must be perfectly assimilated as it will serve you throughout all your life as an improviser.

This rule is as follows:

To improvise on our chords progression , we can play any note of the scale at any time but ,



- ON THE FIRST BEAT OF EVERY CHORD CHANGE (especially when there are multiple chords per bar )

This is what I call the THIRDS RULE .

This is initially very demanding, but it will become, by dint of practice, an automatism , a reflex that will form a very solid base for your phrasing , especially when there are many key changes. Of course , we can later free ourself from this rule .

Why the third ? This is because that is the most melodious note of a chord , although the tonic and fifth are equally important , and can sometimes substitute for third in the above rule, the seventh can also sometimes generate a quite interesting sound , very jazzy.

OK ! Let’s study our example of chords progression :

F G7 C D- G7

- Just the thirds are played (doc24)

- The thirds and 3 adjacent notes (doc25)

- Example of improvisation (doc26)

Let’s examine another chords progression , the first 4 bars of a very well-known standard jazz played in jam sessions, called “ All the things you are “ :

F- Bb- Eb7 Ab

First thought: to look for X7 chord type, here it will be Eb7

I assume that it is a degree V.

This implies that the tonality is Ab

I check the assumption:

- F- is the degree VI of the Ab major scale

- Bb- is degree II

- Ab is degree I

Everything fits perfectly.

Now , I 've just to apply the thirds rule :

- Example of improvisation (doc27)

It's your turn.

Many songs are commonly based on a single tonality.

Train yourself to recognize which one and improvise on it.


This is the hardest part of improvisation.

Some musics can be very complex, for example due to a number of key ( tonality ) changes, sometimes with the added bonus of a fast tempo !

Here, we address the jazz standards, where great improvisers such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, or Michael Brecker, just to name a few , have placed the improvisation at a very high level...

The approach will obviously be to identify all tonalities present in the tune , write its harmonic analysis and juggle with all the scales involved.

We call these tonality changes “modulations” .


Let’s examine a simple progression :

C A7 D- G7

If we take A7 as a starting point ( degree V of a scale/tonality that we will try to identify), we see that it ‘s a degree V of the harmonic minor or melodic minor scale of D, the other chords C and G7 don’t fit these scales.

If one considers G7 as a degree V , that is the degree V of the C major scale and the chords D- and G7 fit the hypothesis, respectively as degree II and V of the C major scale, only A7 does not match .

We are here in the presence of piece with one modulation :

The piece begins in C major tonality ( first bar ), modulates in D harmonic minor tonality on the A7 (second bar ) , then modulates back to the C major tonality on D- and G-7 .

Accordingly, on the first bar , we play in C major, then D minor harmonic on the second bar , and we go back to C major scale on the last two bars .

We'll still apply the thirds rule here, to try to have a coherent and melodic phrasing.

Remember , you can gradually release yourself from this rule when it will become an automatism and when you’ll begin to feel and hear more complex phrasing.

On the other hand , the rule of thirds will remain important during a tonality change :

When you have a tonality change , you have a scale change, and the best way to enter the new tonality is to play the third of the first chord of the new tonality.

This is the safest way to operate a tonality change in a melodic and elegant way !

(doc28) thirds

(doc29) 3 notes

(doc30) pro level


Here is one of the most played tune in jam sessions: “Autumn leaves”

(doc31) "Autumn leaves" score

As usual, we will identify the X7 type chords , hypothesize that they are degrees V of a tonaliy and see whether it’s justified or not .

First X7 type chord : F7

If that is a degree V , we would get a key of Bb major , C- would be the degree II , of course Bbmaj7 is degree I , A-5b7 the degree VII , A-6 the degree VI .

The assumption is obviously good but there ‘s an issue , D7 which can not be the degree III because in this case it should be a minor chord .

Consider the hypothesis that D7 is a degree V, this will give a tonality of G harmonic minor.

The A-5b7 becomes the degree II in G minor harmonic tonality and the G- the degree I of course.

And now, we almost have completed the analysis of the tune .

So there are two keys (close because one is relative to the other) in this tune: Bb major and G minor harmonic (Gmh) , which are found throughout the piece.

But there are still some subtleties:

- An isolated G7 at the eighth bar , that is a degree V of Cmm or Cmh , you have the choice

- A sequence of II/V on the end: at the 27th and 28th bar , we have Gm7/C7 (key of F major) and Fm7/Bb7 (Eb major key )

So we will apply our thirds rule, especially when there are modulations , be careful not to miss the thirds of the first chords of each modulation.

(doc32) thirds

(doc33) 3notes

(doc34) pro level


This is a rather complex piece, typical of jazz standards, which already requires a certain ease, a sense of melody.

But once assimilated, there ‘s no particular problem, it is usually not played in fast tempo , there ‘s no strange chords progression nor unusual chords in it .

Here's the score with the harmonic analysis figuring in it.

Harmonic analysis was found with our usual method. Note that with practice, a good musician sees and feels instantly all the involved keys in a tune , he detects visual or audible clichés like II / V / I progressions .

( doc35) Stella by Starlight ( with harmonic analysis )

- A few observations:

At the 11th and 19th bars , we have isolated X-7 type chords , you can choose to play the minor scale you want to hear . Personally, I would choose the Dorian mode ( Bbmaj scale for C-7 and Cmaj scale for D-7)

At the 17th and 18th bars , we have the beginning of a minor V / I , you can choose between Cmm or Cmh , or better , altered G ( so Abmm )

(Doc36) simple improvisation

- Here we summarize more or less what we have learned, phrases in groups of 3 or 4 notes , fourths, thirds at the bar first note , tonality passages by the third

(Doc37) professional level improvisation


I have wanted to study this piece because it allows me to talk about the modal approach of a tune .

"So what" is suitable, because there are only two chords (and 2 keys) on several bars , that allows to develop particular climates provided by "modes" chosen wisely.

The theme of this piece ( the first tonality is D- ) is based on the degree II of the C major scale (as well as the second tonality is Eb- based on the degree II of C # major).

In classical music, they say it is D dorian mode.

The Dorian mode is a popular mode in modern jazz ( “Footprints” by Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane's “Impressions” are other examples) because this is a climate somewhat modern . Generally , a jazz musician when improvising on a single minor chord chooses the Dorian mode .

Let’s study how to improvise on “ So What “

Consider the first D- chord on which we will have to improvise during 16 bars .

Suppose I am a pianist who loves to play with musical climates and the bassist, very intelligently, plays a D pedal point D at the beginning of the improvisation (a pedal point D is the single note D, played repeatedly or obsessively), because he waits for the scale i will play .

So I can play Dorian, but I can also develop the Middle Eastern climate of D minor harmonic , or the climate somewhat mysterious of D minor melodic , or D phrygian mode ( Bb major scale , D- becomes the degree III of Bb major).

And yet, here I am wise because every pianist has a great advantage :he accompanies himself , so he can strongly support the choice of modes he will play, and can go very far, for example by playing in or out of the D- key !

The bass player is obviously going to play accordingly and also support the mode selected by the soloist, and sometimes stay quietly on the single note of D if he’s not able to identify the mode played by the pianist ! .

The great master of this approach is undoubtedly Herbie Hancock, who may well turn a piece that we know well in a piece that we don’t recognize! (But just listen to the bassist who plays the tonic of the chords in the score)

Let’s consider a saxophonist, Michael Brecker, for example, who liked to play on modes.

He will need a bassist and a pianist performing very well to be accompanied, if he wants to play modal.

(doc38) Dorian

(doc39) harmonic minor

(doc40) melodic minor

(doc41) Phrygian

We note that a modal approach of a tune is possible when we have a chord on several bars , the soloist need time to develop the mode he has chosen and the climate related to this mode, so it requires experienced musicians to accompany the soloist without interfering .


II / V / I progressions are so important that an entire chapter is devoted to them .

They are not only very common in music, sometimes in truncated forms II / V or V / I , but they are a tool to create arrangements , and also a tool to diversify the phrasing during the improvisations .

Take a II / V / I in basic key of C major:

D- G7 C

You can play the C major scale and everything will be fine.

The G7 (called dominant 7th chord) is a chord for "transition" because it gives the listener the desire to hear the next chord as C , for a kind of relief.

This is the principle of tension-resolution

G7 creates tension, C solves it .

This principle is universal, and philosophical ! It gives movement and life to music.

When a drummer plays a drum roll to build anticipation , that is a tension-resolution.

When a couple of lovers quarrel to better meet again , that is tension-resolution!

So we said, G7 creates tension, C solves it .

We can greatly increase the tension on the G7, and on a tension-resolution process , a wrong note will no longer be a false note, but a tension , we have to be skilled in the art of the resolution , which will relieve the listener, we will have to do so in a melodic and elegant way (a poorly resolved tension will be perceived as one or several wrong notes! )

- One way to create a strong tension , which makes sense , is to play on G7 a G7altered (ie the degree VII of Ab melodic minor) , all the accidentals in the G7altered (5b, # 5, 9b, # 9) are all tensions . (doc42)

- You can play a diminished scale on the G7


- You can play a different tonality on the G7


- Can play an atonal phrase (basically a phrase that did not own tonality, ie a chromatic one for example )

Once you become skilled in the acrobatic art of tension-resolution applied to the II / V / I , you will be able to apply it elsewhere in order to gain more freedom in improvisation:

Take a piece of score as follows:

Bb- % % %

I can treat it artificially as follows (while the orchestra plays the normal score):

F7 % Bb- %

That'll open my phrasing, add motion to a static musical passage.

And there I can show my knowledge of the II / V / I ! (altered scale , diminished scale , external tonality , atonal phrase ...)

Just be a bit cheeky !

Just do not miss to well resolve the tension you have created !