Thursday, December 3, 2009

Where's My Melody?

    I was thinking today about the current practice of jazz improvisation and where it sits within the entire tradition of jazz.  The music has certainly come a long way since the birth of the great "American Songbook."  What sticks out to me the most is the multitude of improvisational concepts present within the music today, which there are about as many as there are artists who improvise.

    The past 20+ years seem to have been dominated by the chord/scale theory, where the improvisational material is dependent upon the chord that is being sounded.  This implies that each chord in a progression produces its own improvisational material.

    The chord/scale theory is a great tool that gives you a huge palette of colors to use in improvisations, but that is what it is supposed to be: a TOOL.  Many aspiring musicians, myself included, read so far into this concept that it becomes the essence of improvisation itself.  This is not surprising, though, seeing as how the universities shove it down your throat as if it is the only concept worth knowing, and most of the "brand name" books try to copy the universities.

    The implementation of the chord/scale theory shortens the amount of time it takes for the aspiring jazzer to learn to play over changes, however it is sacrificial to the art of playing melody.  Sure you have all these great colors and substitutions at your fingertips, but if you can't string them together into a meaningful melody, what's the point?  You might as well announce to your audience "now we are going to improvise over a iii-vi-ii-V in Ab."

    Because of the over-saturation of the chord/scale theory in jazz education, the art of playing melody is often overlooked or under-emphasized.  I believe the reason is that it is very difficult to teach somebody how to play melody, as it is a highly personal matter.  Coming up with a meaningful melody on the spot is a skill that can really only be obtained through experience of actually doing it.

    All the scales, chord extensions and substitutions that come with the chord/scale theory are great, but they are to be used as a tool to enhance a melody, and not to exist as the melody.  Take a second and read that sentence again.  The most important part of a song is the melody.  Cats like Miles, Trane, and Bird knew that and followed it.  They all built their solos from the melody of the song, and that made it more memorable and more meaningful because it actually made sense within the context of the song itself.

    There are way too many cats today who sound like machines.  They know all sorts of weird and crazy licks and scales and use them all the time over all sorts of non-functional progressions.  I'm not saying that it doesn't take much skill to play things like that because it takes a tremendous amount of practice and skill to be able to play things like that.  I'm just wondering what happened to the music?

    Music isn't supposed to be about how much you know or how fast you can play or what kinds of weird scales you can fit over different chords.  Music is supposed to be about your experiences, your feelings, your wisdom.  You have to live it.



  1. Totally agree and see it every day in jazz and in rock. I'm currently a teacher and orchestrator but for hobby. I like to focus all my effort into creating a memorable melody and orchestrate around it, around a story. Do you have any tips on making better melodies? Besides practicing making melodies.

  2. I have tried so many different methods of practicing melody. Which one I use depends on the day. One thing is to actually memorize melodies that you like and be able to sing them without an instrument around. Another thing I like to do is to pick a chord and compose melodies starting on a chord tone. Try to make a different melody that ends on each different chord tone, but starting from the same one every time. Once you have composed a melody to every chord tone, change the starting note to a different chord tone and do the same. I saw a video of Vic Juris where he described playing a chord on the guitar and and composing a little phrase in whatever the position on the neck you are playing the chord in. As far as making better melodies goes, I don't know of any clear-cut approach to improving upon it. It's not the answer you want to hear, but I think practicing making melodies is as good as it gets. In theory, the more you practice making melodies, the better you will become at doing it. Sorry if my post is confusing or unclear, I have been up for the last 48 hours and am exhausted.

  3. It's much easier to teach Chord/scale theory than to teach someone how to create melodies. Nice post.

  4. Yes, interesting, so without all the chord/scale knowledge, because I am a beginner, I could just play my melody :-) Not being afraid to fall into my knowledge ;-)


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