I've been working at this for a while. I've listened to a lot of records and I have done some transposing, but my phrasing sounds very amateurish. Are there any overarching rules/principals to

  1. how long a phrase should be and
  2. when the phrase should resolve to chord notes (sometimes an improviser resolved on the beat and sometimes not)

I have an understanding of the various building blocks that improvisers use such as using the tetrad, upper/lower neighbors, using appropriate scales/modes depending on the chord at hand.


With any improv, you want to tell a story. The licks, riffs and grooves are your words. Each phrase you play is a sentence. So a phrase should be no longer than what you take to say a sentence. Where the phrase should resolve to depends on whether it's contributing to rising or falling action (more later.)

So the first thing is your voice. You should sing all your phrases while comping along with yourself. And record it. Don't worry about your voice; Monk and Keith Jarett constantly sang along with themselves. People respond to saxophones and trumpets and violins because they commonly play in the same register as the human voice. Don't listen to pianists, listen to jazz vocalists, sax players, trumpet players. Breath is your best phrasing guide.

When you have a voice you need a story to tell. Writers structure stories as narrative arcs.

A narrative arc is usually:

  • Exposition: The introduction the story in which characters are introduced, setting is revealed.
  • Rising Action: A series of events that complicate matters for the protagonist, creating a rise in the story's suspense or tension.
  • Climax: The point of greatest tension in the story and the turning point in the narrative arc from rising action to falling action.
  • Falling Action (Anti-climax): After the climax, the unfolding of events in a story's plot and the release of tension leading toward the resolution.
  • Resolution: The end of the story, typically, in which the problems of the story and of the protagonists are resolved.

In good stories there's usually a series of rising actions (and slight falling actions) that gradually get bigger to the big climax and the resolution of the story.

So a piano story might go like this:

  • Exposition: Restate the hook or some other melodic fragment in your opening solo phrase
  • Rising Action 1: Start mutating the fragment by changing notes, rhythm or octave in each phrase
  • Falling Action 1: Either state the hook again or play a little chord-melody off the fragment or even stop briefly.
  • Rising Action 2: Continue to mutate the fragment. Get edgier, add some notes or chords that don't fit in the scale. Get louder. Start using flash moves.
  • Falling Action 2: Play the mutated fragment cleanly and simply
  • Rising Action 3: Start playing a completely different melodic fragment
  • Falling Action 3: Go back to your original or mutated original fragment
  • Rising Action 4: Start combining parts of the original fragment and the new fragment and switching between the two. This is dialog and conflict and interesting. Slice and dice, baby. Maybe play one fragment high and the other low. Get them arguing.
  • Rising Action 5: Keep combining and switching and slicing and dicing and effecting until combined statement is now really intense and difficult to play and busy.
  • Falling Action: Take out the parts that jar (or skip this step)
  • Climax: Add your special sauce, whatever makes listeners go "Woo!"
  • Resolution: State your original fragment and then segue back into the tune. (Bonus points to nerds who noticed that this solo is a sonata.)

The conflict in the rising actions are usually described as "tension and release" and the tension can be anything that is unsettled: busy vs. sparse, funky vs. straight, quiet vs. loud, playing up and down the keyboard, adding more chromatic notes or even playing in a key that's different from the song, playing behind the beat or in front of the beat, slow vs. fast, etc.

  • 1
    Nice overview. Thanks for pointing out that tension and release is about more than just dissonance and consonance. Jul 22 '14 at 23:51
  • I'd be very surprised if you're not an excellent musician. Nice answer.
    – Caleb
    Jul 23 '14 at 23:38

In pop music, a tune often starts on the tonic chord but in jazz this is usually the reverse. So when soloing we are heading towards the tonic, where the phrase often ends.

Take this sequence: VImin7 - IImin7 - V7 - Imaj7

These are the opening chords of All The Things You Are and Fly Me To The Moon. In the key of Eb they are Cmin7 - Fmin7 - Bb7 - Ebmaj7

Your phrase should be building through these chords and reach its peak at the V7 chord, because this is where all the 'tension' is, before the 'release' of the tonic. Now you could just play an Eb major scale thoughout the sequence but it would be a little flat and uninteresting. So the trick is to add notes known as alterations.

These are b9, #9, #11 and b13. In the chord Bb7 these note will be B, C#, E and Gb. If you are new to this, just work on b9 and b13.

So your phrase should be building up to the point where you can insert these alterations. You are actually turning the chord into its tritone substitute but perhaps that's for another time.

This is all dealt with in video lesson 15 of my online course. http://www.learnjazzpianoonline.com/lessons.html

  • Excellent site, Paul. Very good teaching materials and technique. Jul 25 '14 at 0:03
  • giving "cookbook" instruction is almost always more harmful than no instruction at all. I know that sounds incendiary, but it's ultimately true.
    – dwoz
    Oct 18 '15 at 19:07
  • @dwoz Could you elaborate on why you think "cookbook instruction" is harmful? What do you consider is a better way?
    – Desty
    Mar 5 '16 at 23:53
  • @Desty, I suppose I should be more specific: BASING your education on cookbook-style instruction, i.e. "do this, then this, then that, and finally, those things." can leave you locked inside a "plato's cave." It's like a carpenter that has absolutely no use for architects, because to him, a building is just various boards nailed together...and he's good at choosing the right nail for the right board, but can't think any bigger than that.
    – dwoz
    Mar 6 '16 at 17:57
  • @Desty, that is not to say that we can't/shouldn't go dumpster-diving into the chord scales...we ultimately must, if we're to truly have command of our instruments. Extending my previous analogy, an architect that doesn't know which end of a hammer is the business end, can't end up with a good building either.
    – dwoz
    Mar 6 '16 at 18:07

To improve your phrasing, I would suggest you get yourself a book called "The Blues Scales: Essential Tools for Improvisation" by Dan Greenblatt and do the exercises in this book. This book teaches and shows you how to develop good phrasing. That's pretty much the thrust of the book and it's written in such a way as to be a good way to teach it to you.

As someone above mentioned, when you improvise, you want to tell a story. This means you want to have a purpose for every note you play. Try simply embracing that concept.

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