3 ways to better jazz improvisations

Studying and decoding jazz harmony is part and parcel of our efforts to produce meaningful improvisations. However, being solely concerned and obsessed with the harmonic validity of our notes is a trap to be avoided. Miles Davis said that good playing is 80% attitude while the actual notes we play is 20%. If playing and creating good improvisations is largely a mentality issue then two implications are raised. First, that great music can be made using simple melodic material, and second, that we should always make the most of what we have.

We can boost our playing if we take a few universal principles and their perceptual effects into account and then internally reorganise what we already know and can play. These principles seem to have their place in all fields of human activity and creation. They touch upon the nature of human perception and transmission of information, and can provide some useful answers to the fundamental question: what makes sense to the human ear?


Arnold Schoenberg said that “Intelligibility in music seems to be impossible without repetition”. Repetitiveness seems to be inherent in musical meaning. Circularness in music and its relation to social rituals goes well back in time. Whole musical genres are based on the concept of hypnotic repetition in order to become inviting, arouse emotions and create a transcendent experience. Even the concept of variation in arts presupposes some kind of pattern or repetition.

By repeating a melody or musical statement when we improvise we help our listeners remember, relate and eventually participate in our music. Common experience and scientific research suggest that repetitiveness arouses a positive and time-varying psychological response that is evident on our brain activity. The most widespread song form of American popular music itself -the AABA form- asks us to repeat a melody 3 times in order to make it memorable and add weight to the composition. So why not do the same?


Claude Debussy has said that “music exists in the space between the notes”. Just like there is nothing worse than someone who never stops talking, improvisers often have the tendency to waffle a lot in an attempt to sound convincing. The artistic and communicational value of pauses has been discovered and documented in arts all around the world. It is so interesting that the actual pause used by stand up comedians to build tension is called “the beat”. A fair amount of pauses in the flow of any type of information is absolutely necessary as this seems to tally better with our natural rate of processing and evaluating incoming information.

By using space and silence creatively when we improvise we have much better chance of engaging our listeners and drawing their attention. Silence is the absolute expectation and tension builder. A pause is also the best way to underline and emphasize a musical statement as our brain needs time to internalise and process information. Moreover, by pausing while improvising on a progression we earn ourselves time to look ahead and generate new ideas. As a general rule i believe we should pull back and never exaust our improvisational resources. It is always better to be on the less side making listeners want more, instead of providing them with a tiring overflow of information.


I could find no quote that caught my eye on the importance of dynamics in music, so here is mine: “improvising with no dynamics shows ignorance for the nature of sound itself”. Sound is made of waves traveling in the air so it makes perfect sense to deliver our music in a similar manner. There is nothing more boring and tiring than a flat, robotic flow of sound information, something that can be really fatiguing especially over longer periods of time. Top sound engineers insist that setting volume levels alone is the first crucial step towards great mixes. It is therefore a good idea to fine tune our dynamics and go beyond that bulk way of playing either soft or loud or even worse, just loud.

By creating patterns of change in volume when we improvise we add emotional content and feeling to our music. Shaping the contour of our improvisations creates contrast and drama. In my experience musicians who handle dynamics with mastery are good listeners and exhibit a high level of musicianship. Intelligent use of dynamics can be responsible for some hair-raising interaction between musicians. If we visualise our playing like a waveform having crests and troughs then subtle and dramatic differences in our sound production can emerge. These will potentially make our improvisations more elegant and impressive.

Studying and decoding jazz harmony is a never ending pursuit and it should not keep us from advancing our skills in improvisation. Repetition, pauses and dynamics will instantly make our playing sound more structured, effortless and harmonically forgiving, because they are deeply intertwined with artistic creation and communication.

How to use the Diminished sound to simplify Jazz Harmony

violin caseAll of us interested in improvising in the jazz idiom need mental tools of simplifying jazz harmony.  The concept I would like to discuss in this article, which I think can help in understanding harmony and chord substitutions, is that of the three diminished families. But before we examine the three diminished families let me put our discussion into context.


When we zoom out of western harmony we can generally detect 2 areas: The area of harmonic tension and the area of harmonic release. Generally speaking, harmonic tension is represented by dominant chords very often joined by minor 7th chords (Gm7-C7, Gm7b5-C7#9,) while harmonic release is represented by major 7th or 6th type chords (Cmaj7, Cmmaj7 Cm6,).

Jazz musicians have enjoyed using the diminished sound as a substitute for the dominant 7th chords (tension areas) due to its property of carrying the necessary amount of inherent tension. The 2 tritone intervals that exist in the diminished arpeggio represent the backbone of harmonic tension in our western tonal harmony system and constitute a powerful tool in improvisation.

It’s worth noticing that the minor third interval -the basic building block of the diminished sound- fails to convey the major sound quality which is defined by a major third interval. However, the diminished sound can be used effectively in order to lead into major chords, implying the 5 of a major chord. This creates nice movement in our lines, an idea jazz guitarist Joe Pass discusses in his 1991 ‘Jazz Lines’ video lesson.

So, the diminished sound can satisfactorily convey the minor and dominant sound qualities and that’s why it is very often used on the 2-5 area of a 2-5-1 progression. Here is the idea:



The first diminished family is defined by the diminished arpeggio: G, Bb, C#, E (Tritones: G-C# and Bb-E) And the equivalent diminished scale which is basically formed by chromatically approaching each of the diminished arpeggio notes: F#-G-A-Bb-C-C#-Eb-E The diminished arpeggio and the equivalent diminished scale relate with these minor chords: Gm, Bbm, C#m, Em We can convey these minor chord qualities satisfactorily by playing the above diminished arpeggio from the root of these chords. When we do that we provide the root, the minor third, the flat 5th and the 6th (all of them nice and valid) The diminished arpeggio and the equivalent diminished scale also relate with these dominant chords: C7, Εb7, F#7, A7 We can convey these dominant chord qualities by playing that same diminished arpeggio one half step above the root of these chords. When we do that we provide the flat 9, the major third, the fifth and the flat 7 of every chord (all of them nice and valid). So, no wonder we come across these 2-5 progressions in jazz: Gm7         C7 Bbm7       Eb7 C#m7       F#7 Em7          A7

See these 5-1s as belonging to the same family. When we conceptualize these 5-1s as a family we can immediately see why substituting Bbm7-Eb7 for Gm7-C7 works (jazz theorists call this backdoor substitution-the idea of using a 2-5 a minor third above your original 5-1) and why substituting C#m7-F#7 for Gm7-C7 also works (the famous tritone substitution-the idea of using a 2-5 a tritone away from your original 5-1).

The point is that we can convey the harmony of these 2-5s just by using the four notes of the same diminished arpeggio. This is a great starting point for improvising. Try to apply rhythmic patterns on just these four notes and I am sure you’ll see the interesting ideas you can come up with. If we now choose to use the equivalent scale then we skyrocket our potential, since a treasure of melodic material lies within the diminished scale. Check this yourself on your instrument.

If we approach the tension areas of a new tune using this approach we narrow our choices of melodic material on harmonic tension areas down to three. And this is true not only for strictly diminished lines. Take the popular Cry Me a River lick, a melodic fragment that all great jazz players have incorporated into their playing:

'cry me a river' lick  

Strictly speaking you wouldn’t call this a diminished line right? But the last 3 notes of the phrase do belong to the diminished scale of our first Diminished Family, so you could actually treat it as melodic material belonging to the first diminished family, as the G minor chord also indicates. Of course, you can expand this idea further by organizing melodic ideas you already know based on their resemblance to one of the three diminished families.

Jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker was a master of the diminished tool. If we master the diminished concept and go beyond than just going up and down the scale, not even experienced ears will be able to understand our mental source of improvisational ideas. Thinking diminished does not necessarily mean sounding diminished! What we are doing is setting up a mental framework.

So, here are the other two Diminished families:



The second diminished family is defined by the diminished arpeggio: Ab, B, D, F (Tritones: G#-D and B-F) And the equivalent diminished scale: G-Ab-Bb-B-C#-D-E-F The diminished arpeggio and the equivalent diminished scale relate with these minor chords: Abm, Bm, Dm, Fm …and these dominant chords: Db7, E7, G7, Bb7 And these are the 2-5 progressions that are formed: Abm7     Db7 Bm7        E7 Dm7       G7 Fm7        Bb7  


The third diminished family is defined by the diminished arpeggio: A, C, Eb, F# (Tritones: A-Eb and C-F#) And the equivalent diminished scale: G#-A-B-C-D-Eb-F-F# The diminished arpeggio and the equivalent diminished scale relate with these minor chords: Am, Cm, Ebm, F#m …and these dominant chords: D7, F7, Ab7, B7 And these are the 2-5 progressions that are formed: Am7       D7 Cm7       F7 Ebm7     Ab7 Fm#7      B7

Remember that this is just one mental tool of simplification. There are other great tools like visualization, especially interesting for us fiddlers since our in instruments are symmetrically tuned in fifths. We will discuss the power of visualization in another article. Don’t neglect to play back up tracks when experimenting. Good luck and let me know what you think!

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