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I'm wondering if it's "usually" good to start off with a chord progression. I also was reading about musical motifs but I think that is mainly for melody, and I'm not sure if the motifs should start first or the progression in improvisation. or maybe the motifs happen after you can get a basic progression going. But I guess, if we were to generalize music does one usually start an improvisation with harmony / chord progressions? And only THEN one works in the melody (with either motifs, or dancing around chord tones, using the key's scale, throwing some accidentals, etc)?

edit: this is the song that inspired me to ask this question. I like how neatly it's organized. I randomly came across it on youtube the other day and it made me think about the power of chord progressions and improvising a melody over them. I have a feeling the guy who made this came up with the melody through improv. and it shows how fundamental an underlying progression is to a song. also I found myself improvising over the vi-IV-V-I. Shout out to Jonah-B for this beautiful piece.

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    "Dancing around the chord tones" to create a melody works, in a sense - but what you create is usually terminally boring if the chords are all the same rhythmic length and the "melody" slavishly follows them. Yet again ...... give up the futile search for "rules", and USE YOUR EARS!!! – user19146 Aug 7 '17 at 19:25
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    @alephzero - so, in a live improv. situation, not knowing what the sequence is going to be , just listen? Chances are you'll be with the others, nearly - but maybe a bar behind... – Tim Aug 7 '17 at 19:30
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    In defense of alephzero, he's basically right. Asking what the rules are is missing the point. The best benefit I can think of from knowing the "rules" is using them as a list of things to challenge and see what you get if you do the opposite. If you want to learn to improvise, it may help to work with repeating chord progressions. If you want to make compelling original music that involves improvisation, then don't read or ask or discuss - play and listen. – Todd Wilcox Aug 7 '17 at 22:21
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    Why not utilize the vast library of existing improvised music? Yeah I get that there aren't really rules in art but there are precedents. – Fugu Aug 7 '17 at 22:32
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    I have to give the OP his due credit for asking the question though. There's nothing wrong with wanting to know the "rules." Even if it "misses the point" though not really -- Music is and always has been the place to learn the rules then learn to break the rules. This is how new music, new genres, and new forms are made. To say that musical interpretation foregoes rules and only requires listening is the equivalent of singing without musical training. Might sound good but could be better and better defined, if the basics were understood – psosuna Aug 7 '17 at 22:53
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Have been in a 100% improv jam band for several years, the skeleton for an improvised segment of music need not be harmonic in nature at all. Our most common technique was to start with single notes on one instrument, which enabled the second and sometimes third instrument to create a kind of chord progression with a sort of contrapuntal set of notes.

So in our improvisations, the chord progression came last. It was only realized once everything was going. The seminal element for us was almost always a rhythm.

Improvisation need not obey practices of "Western" harmony at all, so chord progressions are never necessary. If I were your teacher I'd say there is much to be learned from improvising with other musicians where no one is allowed to play a chord progression. With only single notes, the most any one musician can do is imply a key and even more loosely imply chords. This spreads the responsibility for the harmonic motion around among all the musicians (not counting unpitched percussion), and also allows any one musician to change the harmonic direction.

  • Richard Grayson, a guy known for his classical improvisations based his entire career on starting improvs from harmony/chord progressions. youtube.com/watch?v=vlibSiESVI8 ... see 9:15. but it's interesting from your answer that there are other ways to go about it as well. – foreyez Aug 8 '17 at 0:44
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Behind most improvisation, especially improvisation outside of jazz, is a chord progression. The reasons for this are quite simple: Chord progressions create a harmonic rhythm, give structure to the solo(s), and relate the solo to the rest of the piece of music. A chord progression isn't strictly necessary for good improvisation, but soloing without any kind of chordal accompaniment/comping is fairly advanced (and requires a good ear). Soloing without any harmonic information at all is very advanced, particularly if you plan on doing this with a band, since the onus will be entirely on you to provide the band with the things that elevate music above the level of unorganized noise.

To your question, is it usually good to start with a chord progression, I'd have to give you the entirely useless answer of "maybe". Soloing over chords has many advantages, most of which I've discussed above. It also has some disadvantages: It has a somewhat paradoxical effect on polyphonic improvisation, since the presence of chord changes inherently limits what notes you can play without ending up in seriously dissonant territory. This means that if two (or more) musicians want to play melody lines at the same time, they have to be careful not to step on each other's toes. This isn't really a problem without chord changes and the musicians, in practical terms, have a lot more room to play off of each other. However, it's very, very hard to actually take advantage of this freedom in an effective way and improvisation without harmonic information takes a lot of practice to produce the desired outcome, generally speaking.

The impression I've gotten from your question is that you are looking to write music to be improvised over. Typically, music to be improvised over has had both a melody and a harmonic progression that informs the improvisation, and I would subsequently recommend that that kind of songwriting makes for a good place to start. It's very helpful to have a melody to provide the motives you talked about in your question. Essentially, the melody provides a useful jumping off point for the soloists and integrating phrases from the melody is a time-tested and tasteful soloing technique. There are many examples of this, but a standout is Thelonious Monk, who would sometimes just play the melody in his weird, angular style and call it a day. They aren't quite equal parts in the improvisational process -- there are plenty of jazz tunes where the head is practically inconsequential -- but I would prioritize both good melody and harmony if I were writing a tune that was going to have people soloing over changes.

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I'm wondering if it's "usually" good to start off with chord progressions.

Yes, it is good.

An old cliché but all too true:

You need to learn the rules in order to break them.

Attributed to Charlie Parker:

Learn the changes, then forget them.

Of course that begs the question: If you're supposed to forget them, why learn the changes in the first place?

The answer: It doesn't mean to forget/ignore the changes entirely - changes give you a framework with which to work. What you need 'forget' are the traditional, seemingly arbitrary constraints imposed by the changes: Forget them and play what you hear, within the framework suggested by the changes.

Anyone who has compared Bird to someone like Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra knows that Bird was very well aware of the changes, but he worked through them in new ways that broke down the established rules.

Mark Levin in his Jazz Theory Book (Sequences) explains it well: (emphasis mine)

The more you master 'playin the changes', the more you're likely to use them as a blueprint, rather than laws you have to strictly obey.

To reach the level of artistry of Mulgrew [Miller] -- who plays whatever he hears and sounds right no matter what the chord symbol says - you first have to master playing chord symbols as they are written.

But remember this: Chord Symbols are a guide, not a straightjacket.

My own personal opinion, which is also that of many distinguished pedagogues and scholars: Music without form and harmonic organization can be interesting - for a while - but it will soon become boring and monotonous, even if the players are great virtuosos. Humans thrive on patterns and organization: It's part of the essence of being human. In music that means structure determined by chord changes, and/or regulated melodies and harmonies, or some other system of organization. (True: many will disagree - so be it. Musical preferences are a matter of personal taste - subjective)

Again my personal, subjective opinion: Unless you already know all about how to work with chords and scales, the urge to "just starting playing and not worry about chord changes and rules" is just laziness - it's fun to make interesting sounds without having to work too hard at it.

In the classical world, perhaps the greatest composer of the 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg, went through an atonal period in the early part of the century. But subsequently he abandoned atonality after realizing its limitations for expression and musical development. As a result, he developed something called the Twelve-tone technique subsequently adopted by other notable composers who had dabbled with atonality, including Schoenberg's chief rival and contemporary, Igor Stravinksy. (Stravinksy's adoption of the 12 Tone Technique was, in that world, as controversial and iconoclastic as the day Bob Dylan "went electric" - Worlds Collided.)

The Twelve-tone technique doesn't use "chord changes" and harmonies in the traditional sense, but it is indeed structured with rules and constraints, which provide a framework for interesting and engaging musical expression.

So yes:

Learn the changes, before you forget them


Note 1: This doesn't mean that interesting music cannot be developed by starting simply with a melody and jamming on it. But subsequently that kernel should be developed and structured into a coherent piece of music, which should be your goal. My discussion here relates to making "ignoring chord changes" your musical style and methodology.

Note 2: My approach in this question is that it's not really about "chord changes" per se, but structured, formalized music v. a "free form" approach. The term "Chord Changes" simply reflects the way most pop/rock musicians view musical structure.

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How can anything be improvised without a skeleton to hang it on? Yes, of course there's totally free improv., but as far as I think, it's pretty meaningless and usually ends up unmusical. Except I was talking to a good classical player who told me he had groups of non-musicians, gave them instruments and within half an hour they were playing together in tune. I think he missed the flying pigs bit.

When there is a plan, as in a chord sequence, them improv. can be made intelligently. Of course, one can widdle all day long with pentatonics, and sound not half bad, but that's hardly proper improv. Improv. will need a coherent path to follow, as certain notes will work better with one chord but not another. At a gig a few weeks ago, I was improvising, as oft happens, when the chord sequence (played by a guitarist) went off at a complete tangent. My playing sounded rubbish, as I was expecting a certain sequence, which now had changed, and I didn't have a clue what to follow. So, yes, a sequence is necessary.

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    Free improv is meaningless and unmusical? I think if you put that statement against the fact that there was a period of time where nearly every great jazz musician of the era was involved in it to some degree it sounds a bit silly. Furthermore, the influence of free improv on jazz today is ubiquitous and this influence is a big part of what separates improvisation now from improvisation in the late fifties. The irony of your argument (and it's an argument) and, indeed, your anecdote, is that free improv is very musically challenging. But it's not impossible, and chord changes aren't necessary. – Fugu Aug 7 '17 at 21:28
  • @Fugu Furthermore, the influence of free improv on jazz today is ubiquitous.... True. However, today it is an influence contributing to the music, among many others. The avant garde artists of the 50's and 60's had something very important to say and made great contributions, but on its own, their music has not really endured. Like many other cutting edge trends that surfaced in music and art, they left their mark for the future but quickly disappeared as self-standing forms or genres. IMO that's because on their own they don't offer much in terms of musical satisfaction for most. – Stinkfoot Aug 8 '17 at 3:44
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    There are many great free jazz records released every year. Indeed, there is a whole category of bands that record in the style of Ornette Coleman's early quartets. Partikel's String Theory was one of the best jazz albums of the last five years and they wear their connection to Coleman on their sleeve. Japan's free jazz scene is positively thriving and they make the free jazz of the 60s look like bebop in comparison. – Fugu Aug 8 '17 at 3:50
  • @Fugu : There are many great free jazz records released every year You think they're great - what that means is you like them a great deal. I'm sure you have good reasons for that, nor can anybody can argue with you on that, but objectively it's meaningless, as is virtually everything we can say about music, aside from the pure mathematical analysis of a score or transcript. – Stinkfoot Aug 8 '17 at 14:45
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    @Stinkfoot If I went in here saying "rock is a dead genre" my opinion on rock wouldn't play into it; someone would come in and (rightly) tell me "rock is still doing fine, look at all these great rock albums from this year". You made an objectively incorrect statement about the state of free jazz and I corrected you. – Fugu Aug 8 '17 at 15:07
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It can be in much classical (and most popular) music. Things like Rhythm Changes and 12-bar blues make good chord sequences for improvisation (as do La Folia and the Passaezzos for classical). However one can start of with a melody (or even a couple of motifs) like in Bach's "Musical Offering" where Fred's theme is expanded.

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    Another possibility is to improvise over a given bass line (which may be mutated or moved to another voice even.) The Folia and Passamezzos are of this type. There are quite a few from the early 1500s to 1700s. – ttw Aug 8 '17 at 14:59
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If by "usually", you mean "more than half the time among all published musicians", I don't think we can determine the answer with certainty. Some of the other answers have already indicated that, sometimes, people improvise melodies first, and things turn out fine. But how often is that "sometimes"? I'm not sure we can cite enough sources to determine that.

If you're asking me whether I usually start improvising by determining chord progressions first, the answer is an emphatic NO. As a decent singer who's almost never at an instrument, I almost always improvise (sung) melodies first and figure out implied chord progressions later. Sometimes, I restrict my improvisations by key, meter, rhythms, genre, and/or style, but none of those strictly determine chord progressions. I improvise at the piano similarly (with significantly more boring results, IMO--there, I need to come up with explicit chord progressions almost immediately after I play the melody, and my chord progressions get less creative).

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You should be able to find various method books or tutorial videos describing approaches to improvisation. In the end I think these are the places to look for answers.

The jazz methods I have seen all start with a given chord progression and then match scales to the chords or arpeggiate the chords.

The classical approaches I know about show either how to embellish a given melodic skeleton or improvising the right hand keyboard part over a figured bass. Figured bass is an 17/18th century thing roughly equivalent to a chord progression, but it predates the modern theory of harmony. Glossing over the details, the right hand improvisation would involve both chord and scale based material.

In the pop style of your example, I have seen YouTube tutorials that basically show playing the chords of a song with various broken chord patterns with different rhythms and embellished with non-chord tones.

Overall I would say using chord progressions as the starting point for improvisation is a common approach - and importantly to me - in no way are these approaches presented as artistically inferior to some other approach. Some of these methods will tell you that eventually you will stop thinking about the chord progressions and play more intuitively, but this usually happens after a lot of practice.

One other point I think is worth mentioning is how harmony/melody (or chord/scale) can be seen as two sides of the same coin. For example, in C major if you play a descending broken chord of G7 and precede each tone with an appoggiatura you get G, F, E, D, C, B, A, G. ) Is that an embellished dominant seventh chord, or a scale, or both? So the structure we start with may be based on chords, but the improvisation approach does have to be chords versus scales. It should be a fluid blend of both.

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