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Sound Structures for Music Improvisation

by Renee Leech

Lesson 2: Work with a Sound Skeleton

To free an improvisation from limitations imposed by a familiar style, but still have structure, it is useful to work with a sound skeleton. The skeleton may be rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, formal, dynamic, or all of these. The skeleton provides a conceptual framework to deviate from and return to. The more one works with patterns derived from, or contrasting with, the skeleton, the more depth the improvisation will have.

A basic three-tone improvisation follows, so that you can get an idea of what this method can produce. The example may be tried playing notes named, or substituting three (and only three, at first) tones of your choosing. If you do not have access to an instrument which plays more than one note at a time, you can establish a drone or home tone which you return to now and then on your instrument. Or, this exercise can be done ensemble, with the harmony/beat and melody/rhythm divided between instruments.

Start by establishing:

Please note that the rhythmic patterns chosen, especially in group work, should contain both short and long beats (for example, short-short-long [counted 1, 2, 3-4]), and rhythmic patterns should be repeated a lot, or only slightly varied, throughout whole sections of the improvisation.

1. Map Out Your Skeleton.

Rhythm. 1 2 3-4, 1 2 3-4, 1 2 3 4, 1-2 3-4 or _ _ __, _ _ __, _ _ _ _, __ __

A poem or refrain can help make sure you have short and long beats, and make your rhythmic pattern easy to remember. Expand upon your ideas, then return to the refrain for continuity.

Refrain ( 1	2 /  3	    4)

	Cloaked in / night:
	touch   is / sight,
	shap - ing / what    I
	hear   	   / (shhh...).
	Sounds seem/ new,
	prob - ing / through,
	wak -   en / -ing    my
	ear 	   / (shhh...).

Tone Row (for melody). Three tones, F, G, B flat (written Bb)

Harmony. Three tones, F, G, B flat (written Bb)

2. Manipulate and Rearrange.

The idea is to keep components small, so you can always hear the skeleton ideas in your mind, while you try out different ways of expressing those components musically.

Choose one of the improvisation strategies below, and work with it for at least one full poem rendering. Each of the following approaches may comprise an hour or a few minutes of improvisation.

Take advantage of the "shhh..." to develop contrasting material. Try playing the full poem three times, and develop constrasting segments--anything different, your choice of length--between each poem rendition.

BEAT-Use one of these choices at a time. RHYTHM-Use one of these choices at a time. MELODY-Use one of these choices at a time. HARMONY-Use one of these choices at a time.

Keep to one idea until it's thoroughly worked through. Spend time developing a mood and seeing if you can heighten the mood. Welcome the unexpected, and take off from the unexpected to a new idea. You decide how to use these components.

3. Add Dynamics.

Once you get the idea going, experiment with force and intensity.

DYNAMICS-Use one of these choices at a time.

You can reinterpret the same piece to be soft, somber, floating, bombastic, etc., by changing whatever your instrumentation allows to be changed, and whatever other radical changes you might think of. But keep your rhythmic, tonal, and harmonic skeleton strictly in mind. The skeleton should always be the impetus and undercurrent of your improvisation.

4. Add Form.

You can expand your improvisation into a longer piece, with a beginning, middle, and end, by establishing sections for your improvisation. Each section would have a pattern you have decided upon. Give the sections a character that is different from the other sections, or a repetition or variation of other sections.

FORM-Make A and B of equal length. Try section A as the poem, and section B as the contrasting material.

5. Evaluate your work.

To prevent problems, keep to the skeleton (the poem-rhythm and the three designated notes). Try to move farther out with more and more experimentation, but return to the skeleton when the thread starts to vanish.

To keep yourself improvising, notice how you feel when you have finished an improvisation. If you have fully concentrated on the activity, you will feel refreshed, maybe elated. (Psychologist Abraham Maslow has characterized this creative euphoria as a "peak experience.")

Historical Perspective.

There is some evidence that early peoples may have used three-tone melodies. Such music has been recorded in Chile, Bali, and India. Hungarian composers Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, studying Hungarian folk music, noted three-tone melodies in use by children, and hypothesized they were remnants of ancient pre-pentatonic music.

Contemporary musicians have noted the value of music "microsystems," such as the three-tone melody, in making music accessible. Kodaly and Orff have integrated three-tone melodies into their teaching methods. Contemporary "minimalist" composers, such as Philip Glass, Carl Orff, and John Adams, have focused on microsystems of music to invigorate and structure new classical music.

Three-tone motifs have been prominent in such diverse contemporary works as jazz musician John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and Czech-American composer Vaclau Nelhybel's Etude Symphonique.

Example Library: The Three-Note Skeleton

A section on example three-note skeletons is under development. If you wish to receive that section by email and have not already filled out our site survey, click here to mark your preferences and leave your email address. Adding "" to your email address book will enable the FREE echapter to bypass your spam blocker.

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