You Can Play Any Note (Or How To Improvise Chromatically)

It’s easy to start improvising.

Pick up your horn and play any note. Now play another. See? Easy.

In my previous post we discussed working with a drone to connect your ear to your breath, voice, and horn through simple warm up exercises.

Today we’ll take that idea a step or two further and explore the sounds of the chromatic scale over a fixed pitch and functional harmonies.

The chromatic scale equally divides the octave into twelve parts and each note has its own feeling against the fundamental (C). This feeling is personal.

Everybody has their own perception of consonance and dissonance. Find yours. Do you prefer major thirds? Minor seconds? Tritones?

Play the above passage slowly and understand how each note feels to you. Then play any of those notes in any sequence one after another. Now we're starting to make melody.

Got it? Great. That's the fundamental concept of improvisation (or composition for that matter). Its all the same thing. Improvising is just composing in the moment in relation to a stimulus (in our case the fixed C drone).

The next step is bringing time in as another stimulus and improvising compositionally within a rhythmic framework.

Take the above example again.

When we place each note of that upward chromatic scale as a quarter note in 4/4 time we equally divide the octave into three parts resolving to the fundamental. The first note of each measure (C - E - G#) spells out an altered major triad and each measure contains a melodic cell that can now be transposed up a third into the following measure.

Another example could be:

In #1 we have a cell composed of three half step intervals moving upward. In #2 we have half up / whole up / half down. We then transpose that up a third to the second measure continuing to the resolution in measure four.

Nicolas Slonimsky calls this a "Semitone Progression" in his Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. It's a great book that I'll reference from time to time. Check it out. Coltrane did.

Now let's take this a step further and see how our chromatic scale works over a harmonic progression. We'll take our C fundamental as our major key and play a functional I-IV-III-VI-II-V-I progression underneath.

How does that sound? Pretty consonant, right? The built in logical progression of notes leads the ear to our resolution and all of our "dissonances" can be forgiven.

But what if we resolve to a dissonance? Let's take our cell and transpose the whole thing up a half step and play it over the same progression.

A bit more dissonant but just as logical. It takes you somewhere. I personally love the sound of the flat ninth against a major chord (especially with the sixth in there).

You can continue this process up two more chromatic steps before our full cell repeats at the major third interval.

Here's a PDF with those additional examples and below is an audio stream of them all on piano.

Play with this idea and improvise freely. Don't get hung up on the "rules" and just let your creativity wander with no inhibitions. Be free. Play what you hear and what you think you hear (thanks to the maestro Steven Bernstein for that gem).

Take a deep breath and remember:

You can play any note.

PS. For an additional example of composing with a semitone progression check out the video below of Color Theory recording my composition "Blue" for our first album.

Here's a PDF of the trumpet part. The opening melody in the first system is a twelve tone row harmonized with a chromatic major ninth progression.

Next up: major scales and diatonic harmony. Until then, cheers!

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