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Sadly I won't succeed at the "Music Man" approach to learning to improvise. By that I mean "hear it, fumble around with no coaching, and then play inspired music by the end of the movie".

What I'd greatly appreciate are some strategies for creating interesting 2 to 3 bar arrangements within a given scale. This would be especially helpful for those lead sheets that end a long phrase with a "held" note taking two bars. That's where, for blues especially, I've heard some really clever transitions.

For background, I've been told to start with a "horizontal" approach ("sequence scale notes in order") interrupted by small interspersed loopbacks. I expect someone with experience could make that cool, probably using some syncopation. I've also tried, with a bit more success, to blues-ify the bars by picking notes from the right blues scale.

FWIW, my "ear" is also fairly untrained, so I find it hard to pick up ideas off a recorded performance.

Suggestions?

  • This doesn't directly answer your question for improvisation strategies, but I highly recommend ear training, especially if you intend to do much composition or improvisation. It's pretty straightforward (and fun) to learn on your own, and the payoff is well worth the investment. There's lots of answers about how to do that on this very site: music.stackexchange.com/search?q=ear+training – Caleb Hines Sep 10 '14 at 20:46
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There are two basic approaches to take when improvising. One is a chord-first approach, and the other is a scale-first approach. Both are useful, and can feed back and forth on each other.

In the chord first approach, you begin with an existing chord progression (which you might possibly modify or elaborate) and determine your melody notes from that. You aren't limited to just chord-tones, though, as you can begin to insert so-called non-harmonic tones, such passing tones and appoggiaturas. This is what you want to use if you're improvising over an existing tune, since you don't want to stray too far from the melody.

In the melody first approach, you begin with notes from your chosen scale, and then harmonize them. To some extent, these notes can even be seemingly random, although for best effect, they should tend to have a lyrical quality. You're looking for something that makes sense as a singable melody. One good way to do that is to use mostly scale steps, with occasional leaps. This approach can be used when you're creating a brand new melody from scratch, and have no need to fit to pre-existing chords.

Lots more advice regarding creating melodies can be found here:

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