William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

So How Do I... "Make" the Changes? (Part 1)

One of the most foundational skills that must be established early in an improviser's development is the ability to use melodies to clearly and accurately describe harmonies (or, "changes"). This process, often referred to as "making the changes", is one that causes many inexperienced jazz musicians a lot of confusion and frustration. In the following series of posts, I'll discuss four specific ways you can guide the listener's ear through jazz harmonies, and thereby "make the changes".

Resolving Within a Single Chord (Internal Resolution)

Before attempting to improvise melodies over a series of multiple chord changes, it would make sense that we should first understand how to create strong lines over a single chord. I like to think of this as "internal resolution", because instead of resolving melodies from one chord to the next, this process involves resolving melodies inside an individual harmony. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, "How do I describe a harmony with a melody?". Let's say we're faced with the task of improvising over a Gmaj7 chord. The simplest way to create a strong melody over this chord would be to use a Gmaj7 arpeggio, as we would then be constructing a melody with literally the same notes that are in the chord. The following lines offer a few examples of purely arpeggio-based ideas.

Arpeggios are an extremely efficient and effective way to internally describe a chord, but what if you want to play more conjunct, scalar lines? This is where chord-scale relationships come into play, and it is also where problems can arise. Essentially, chord-scale theory (CST) is a way of assigning certain scales to certain harmonies in order to derive collections of pitches from which to draw on as an improviser. This is a perfectly valid approach to learning material for improvisation, but the problem is that it does not acknowledge the fact that not every note within a scale is functioning with equal strength in relation to the harmony it embodies. To illustrate this, let's take a look at how a G major scale relates to a Gmaj7 chord.

Now, the scale is an obvious choice for the given harmony because the notes of the chord are all found within the scale, but what about the other notes in the scale (2nd, 4th, & 6th)? What do we do with these notes? These notes can be treated in two different ways, and it's very important to understand the difference between the two.

Using Them as Tension Tones

First of all, these notes can be treated as passing--or tension--tones. When the notes are being used in this way, they are being used to connect and resolve to the stronger notes of the tonality. Jazz pedagogue Bert Ligon explains this through what he calls the "Tonal Hierarchy". According to this idea, the various notes in any given tonality contain different amounts of strength. The most foundational level is the tonic. The second level contains the 5th and 3rd. The third level contains the other scale tones (2, 4, 6, & 7). Finally, the fourth level contains all the other chromatic notes (b2, #2, #4, b6, #6). I like to think of these different levels as layers in a tonal pyramid--the higher layers of the pyramid naturally want to resolve to the lower levels. When you listen to and study great improvisers playing strong scalar lines over a chord, they are acknowledging this tonal hierarchy within their melodies. Consequently, when you hear an improviser struggling to clearly define a harmony with a scale, it is probably because they are not acknowledging the resolution tendencies inherent to the scale tones themselves. What this problem boils down to is the fact that CST does not address resolution in any way, so if a student chooses to learn jazz improvisation using CST, they are learning what notes to play, but they are not learning how to use them to achieve the desired effect. Just because CST tells us that a G major scale works over a Gmaj7 chord doesn't mean that every note of the scale is going to sound equally strong over the chord.

So now the question becomes, "How do I use the weaker tones of a scale to effectively highlight the stronger tones of a scale and therefore describe the given harmony?" Essentially, this involves changing the way we think about and hear scale tones. My first guitar teacher, Stan Smith, helped me do this by introducing me to his own version of Tonal Hierarchy when I began studying with him, and it completed transformed the way I thought of melody and resolution. We must keep in mind that according to this concept, the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 7th are on a higher level than the Root, 3rd, and 5th. Therefore, the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 7th must be thought of and heard as notes through which we resolve to the Root, 3rd, and 5th. The following examples illustrate several ideas you can incorporate into your scale practice to help internalize the Tonal Hierarchy.

For a 5th step--once you are comfortable hearing your way through the scale--practice enclosing the chord tones with chromatic gestures. Click here to check out my recent blog post on enclosures.

Practice taking these 5 steps through other keys, along with taking them through other major & minor tonalities.

Using Them as Ex-tension Tones

Aside from treating the 2nd, 4th, and 6th as notes through which we resolve to the root, 3rd, and 5th, these notes can be treated as chord tones within an extended 13th arpeggio. When a 7th chord arpeggio is extended in continuous thirds past the 7th, the 2nd, 4th, and 6th are added on top. However, because these notes are being added above the 7th in a higher octave, they are renamed the 9th, 11th, and 13th. These three notes (referred to as "extensions") have the potential to create more complex and colorful harmonies than basic 7th chords, and when used melodically over basic 7th chords, have the potential to imply these sounds. In the first part of this post we discussed ways to use the 2nd, 4th, and 6th as tension tones, but now our question becomes, "How do we treat these notes as extensions instead of tensions?". Essentially, the key to doing this is to reverse the way we previously treated these pitches. Rather than using them to give weight to chord tones, we must now give weight to them via chord tones and other pitches. One great way to observe this procedure taking place is to study well-written melodies. Below are the opening few bars to Bronislau Kaper's classic standard "Invitation".

The opening of this melody is an excellent example of the 2nd and 6th scale degrees effectively being used as 9th and 13th extensions. So what is it about the way these notes are being used that makes them sound like extensions rather than tensions? Well, here are a few things to observe, study, and take to the practice room:

  • Agogic Accent. This is a fancy way of saying that the notes are receiving accentuation simply because they are being held for a longer duration than the notes around them. As you can see, the A in the first measure and D's in the third measure are the notes of the longest duration in the phrase. This fact alone is going to draw more attention to them and make them come across as the 9th and 13th rather than the 2nd and 6th.
  • Rhythmic Placement. Another thing that gives these D's and A's the weight of chord tone extensions in the fact that they are placed on downbeats each time they occur. Downbeats are metrically stronger than upbeats, and naturally give more stress and weight to the pitches which occupy them.
  • Enclosure. Any time a pitch is enclosed by pitches above and below it, attention and weight is automatically drawn to the enclosed pitch. The fact that the A on beat three in m. 2 is being enclosed by chord tones above and below it helps reinforce the pitch as an extension rather than tension.

Try incorporating the different sets of ideas from this post into your scale practice routine. The goal is to be so totally in control of your scalar lines that you can mold them to describe any harmony in any way. After this internal resolution has been internalized, the next step is to gain control of resolving between multiple chords in a progression. I'll address this in my next post. Stay tuned, and happy practicing!