There are many elements that contribute to musical interest and beauty, but for today’s lesson we will focus on two key factors. The first of these factors that we will discuss is contrast. Both rhythmic and pitch contrast aid in the creation of interesting and beautiful melodies. If a melody is composed of only one rhythmic value, it becomes boring and predictable. Variation between short and long rhythmic values helps to add interest and beauty. Also, the rhythmic development of phrases causes the rhythmic variation of a melody to take on more of the qualities of human expression and emotion.
Beside rhythmic variation, contrast in pitch also can add to the interest and beauty of a melody. Pitch movement can contrast in both the direction of travel (up or down) and the distance between pitches (leaps and steps). Again, too much of any one type of movement will result in melodies that are boring and predictable. Tasteful contrast between stepwise motion, leaps, upward motion and downward motion helps to add interest and beauty.
The second factor that we will discuss today is musical patterns. Recognizable melodic patterns help to orient and ground the listener. If a listener is bombarded with a collection of random melodies that are not related to each other in any way, he/she can become overwhelmed and lost in the music. Melodic patterns serve to provide structure and order within the music. In addition, melodies communicate ideas and feelings. Recognizable patterns aid in clarifying the melodic communication. Some composers have even used certain recognizable melodic patterns to personify different characters in plays, operas and movies.
In addition to the skillful variation of rhythmic values and pitch motion, a musician must also skillfully select which pitches he/she plays while improvising. In order to skillfully improvise over a particular musical chord, the musician must first limit themselves to a pool of pitches that will be a good tonal match for that chord. One approach for creating such a pool of pitches is using chord tones. Another approach is to apply specific scales (or temporary key signatures) to each chord of the song.
When using chord tones to create the pool of usable pitches for improvisation, we must be able to identify the pitches that compose each chord of the music we are playing. I have had lessons in the past that explain the theory behind the formation of triads and seventh chords. Triads are built off of the 1st, 3rd and 5th scale degrees of a given root. Seventh chords are built off of the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th scale degrees. Any of these pitches would be excellent selections for improvisation over a given chord.
The scale based approach has a much more distant relation to the original harmony. One must realize the combination of the main chord tones and upper extensions in order to identify the entire scale. However, once this task is complete the performer will probably find it easier to memorize a scale as opposed to memorizing the main tones and upper extensions of a chord. In addition, the scale approach aids in the creation of melodies that contain more stepwise motion. However, too much stepwise motion may cause the improvisation to sound like a scale exercise and not a melody. Care must be taken to avoid this.
As mentioned earlier, passing and neighbor tones can be used to connect and transition between target pitches in an improvised melody. A passing tone is a pitch that lies between to target pitches when traveling in stepwise motion in one direction (either up or down). A neighbor tone is a pitch that is located either directly above or below a target pitch. Complete neighbor tones start on a target pitch, travel to the neighbor tone and then return to the original target pitch. Incomplete neighbor tones start on the neighbor tone and then travel to the target pitch. The correct use of these filler pitches combined with target pitches can result in a wide variety of beautiful and interesting melodic lines.
Musical improvisation is a beautiful form of musical expression. I think of it as instant melodic composition guided by a framework of predetermined chords. Since there are many methods a musician can employ when improvising, we must be open to explore multiple mindsets in order to discover the techniques that best suit our way of thinking.
In this Learning Music With Ray video I discuss the various approaches to musical improvisation. I define improvisation and discuss the skillful selection of rhythms and pitches. I also discuss the chord and scale based approaches to pitch selection. Finally, I explain what target pitches, passing tones, complete neighbor tones and incomplete neighbor tones are.