Learn to improvise. 2004-2005. Lesson 17: chord schemes suitable for improvisation.

Improvising usuably is done according to the chord scheme of an existing song. Not every song, however, is equally suitable for that. Art has to do with balance, the best compromise. For music you cannot say: the faster, the better or the softer, the better, but also not: the more complex, the better. This holds also for the suitability of a scheme for improvisation.

These things depent on the style of the music and the skill of the player. Sometimes people come to me with a music piece they like and want to improvise on it. This seldom works out well.

In the first place the chord scheme of the piece has to found. Sometimes the harmonics are built from different voices, so you can't speak of chords. This is the case with classical music.

In the second place, modulations may be uncommon, making it hard to find a logic flow in your melody. Moreover, in this course I want to follow the history for didactical reasons: for classical music start with the style of Mozart and the like, and for jazz with the blues. I don't like if someone has followed my course for two years and still is not able to accompany 'He is a jolly good fellow' on a party. Some professional saxophone players cannot play in a dixieland band. This way the complexity of their play doesn't give evidence of a high level, but of a restricted one.

The opposite are the chord schemes which are too simple and have no modulation at all. There is hardly a characteristic harmonic flow and as you must feel the flow without thinking you easily miss it during improvisation.

The popularity of the 'jazz standards' for improvisation is caused by the balance in complexity of their chord schemes.
Here are some examples:
  1. 'Toen onze mop een mopje was' is too easy. Click to hear / Click for the scheme
  2. A blues with the scheme C C C C7 F F7 C C G7 G7 C C has the simplest acceptable complexity, as the seventh chords satisfy to a certain extent the need for modulation. Click to hear
  3. 'I am gonna sit right down and write myself a letter' is nice to improvise on. Click to hear / Click for the scheme
  4. 'My foolish heart' is too difficult for improvisation. Click to hear / Click for the scheme
  5. 'Morgengruss' of Schubert is a classical work and you could improvise on it, if you could transfer the harmonic flow into a chord scheme, but it satisfies only to a certain extent. Click to hear / Click for the scheme

Examples of parts of chord schemes suitable for improvisation are (initial key C):
  1. C Am Dm G7 Click to hear
  2. C C7 F Fm (C G7 C) Click to hear
  3. C D7 G7 Click to hear
  4. C A7 D7 G7 Click to hear
  5. C E7 A7 D7 G7 Click to hear
Also minor chords may fit in well as you may hear in the song 'I am gonna sit right down'.
HOMEWORK: Choose a song with a suitable scheme or make a scheme yourself and improvise on it.
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