Week 1, Improvising with Keys and Intervals

Class Summary

It was a sincere pleasure to meet you and hear you yesterday. Looking forward to continuing this exploration together. 

We covered three ideas:

1. Improvising using key centers
2. Improvising using intervals
3. Improvising using tonal harmony

A few of you asked about exercises for working on these ideas. I responded that the best way is just to do it: practice improvising short pieces using each idea, record yourself, critique, then do another one.

A little more guidance:

For 1), I suggest recording yourself doing a short piece in C, then another in Db min, then in D, then Eb min, and so on. Each time, think about providing contrast to what you just played. Contrast can come in the form of different uses of rhythm, timbre, dynamics, texture, register, mood. The point of this constraint is that it’s very open-ended, so be creative and most of all, have fun. 

For 2), I suggest putting every interval from unison to Major Ninth on little pieces of paper, putting them all into a hat, and pulling one out at random. Then record yourself doing a free improvisation using that interval only. This means that any note you play should be paired with another that is that precise interval away, either melodically or harmonically. Take your time and try to be really precise about this. Enjoy the often surprising sounds that arise. 

For 3), I’m attaching a worksheet to practice tonal harmony in major modes. We can talk later about the minor modes, which are more complicated. This definitely takes a while to get together (years, in my case), but if this idea interests you, I suggest starting to practice it in all keys. You may find it transformative. The idea, as far as improvising is concerned, is to make up pieces that diligently move between harmonies that are allowed in the system. This creates a powerful large-scale sense of organization, while still allowing you to use as much dissonance and chromaticism (and exotic chords) as you’d like. It’s a powerful framework inside of which you can put many different things, including many different styles of music.

I’m very much looking forward to hearing your submissions! Please keep them under 4 minutes each. As a reminder, you should submit an improvisation that uses one or more of these three ideas. When you submit, please also write a paragraph about what it is that you are doing in your improvisation. If you have any other thoughts about the process, I welcome those as well. 


Austin Zhang — Perfect 4th — Sax

Here improvising around the interval of a perfect 4th. Tried to stay around a pulse and utilize rhythm without being too strict about being in a certain meter. Wanted to pace myself over the course of 4 minutes, as well as hold on to my ideas as long as I could.

Great sound — nice reverb, very tasteful and good sound capture. Digging the repetition of ideas, with changes in timbre and expression. Really patient development; maybe at times I could have used a longer departure from the basic idea — a kind of “B section” that goes away from it for a while before coming back. Once you’ve established the idea and it’s anchored in the listener’s ear, it’s a powerful move to take it away for a while, to make us yearn for its return. Love the powerful energy at the end, and the coda feels really natural.
Really wonderful! Love it.

Maxine Troglauer — Mixture of Intervals and Keys — Trombone

Since I didn’t want to make it too long, I played the 12 key- improv only from Cmaj  to Fmin, but with different constraints withing each key:
Cmaj: 4ths
Dbmin: contrasting style with legato and lower register,
Dmaj: 5ths, multiphonics
Ebmin: long notes in different ranges, jumps
Emaj: repetitions, fast notes
Fmin: Octaves  

Beautiful trombone sound, and well recorded too — lovely choice of reverb.

I was a bit confused about the constraint of using only certain intervals, because it would make the choice of pitches really limited, for example if I only use major thirds starting on f, I could only use the pitches F – A- C#… But maybe we can talk about this later briefly again to clarify things for me.

Great question, and i’m glad you brought this up. The rule is that any note needs to be paired with another note that is the precise interval away; but once you’ve paired it, you can feely choose another note to play. Digging the sonic variety. I did request 4 minutes, and this is 10 minutes. Also, i’m not sure it makes so much sense to combine the interval exercise, which is by definition atonal, with the key center exercise. It could work, but i think in this case the “key” aspect isn’t necessarily all that present, and the “interval” aspect isn’t so much either.  Still, this is beautiful playing, and it feels like you were able to play something here that you
wouldn’t have played otherwise, so that’s great.

Since I was on tour I didn’t have a lot of time of actually doing this exercise but I already like it a lot because withing being free you have things to grasp and walk along with and the huge possibilities of improvisation in general become a little more approachable.

Great observation, and that’s exactly what it’s about — finding constraints that limit your options while still giving you enough freedom that you can be fully expressive. Great that you were on tour! A rarity nowadays. 

Gavon Mitchell — A Major — Guitar

I recorded a lot of tries of doing in different keys. I also tried with intervals but had an incredibly difficult time doing so. I decided this was about my favorite overall recording. I think I did a fair job at keeping it changing and different throughout. It is hard though as staying in one keys becomes limiting. I tried to keep a rhythm consistent but change the melodic nature i guess as well as rhythm and dynamics. This was a ton of fun though. I did this in A major on a guitar instead if mandolin. I am more comfortable on guitar.

Phone sound. Still, nice guitar sound. You’re saying you’re limited by the idea of staying in one key — but actually you’re staying in one scale, the major scale. If we’re in a “key”, we can take that quite loosely and introduce chromaticism, even modulate to another key. For example, try moving to the dominant, then back to the tonic. Would love to hear you play with the intervals! Lovely musicality from you here, a meditative vibe that i dig.

Jacob Leibowitz — Tritone Improv — Piano and Voice

The concepts I set out to employ were the Tritone interval, switching where my vox lines up with the two and the three in the 2:3 polyrhythm. create an iso-rhythm between my vox and the “3” hand of the piano (you can hear me struggling to try and get this).

An interesting thing that happened that I didn’t set out to do was when the voices of the polyrhythm lined up (near the beginning of the composition) I would switch which hand played the 2 and which hand played the three.

Phone sound. Quite an interesting idea to say the name of the interval! Reminds me of Django Bates’ “Interval Song”. Interesting that you decided to repeat the same idea over and over again. This is certainly artistically valid, and your piece really did feel fun to me — it has a “vibe”! I would encourage you, though, to play with moving the interval around, and to create new shapes using this interval. For example, you could create a melody that goes C F# G Db. or C F# A Eb. Playing with octave displacement would be interesting too. This feels like performance art.

Yixiang Wang— Key Improvs — Violin

I improvised on each of 12 keys, using the key center idea, and I didn’t realize I should also use minor keys until I got to the last four keys… 
I have a question. When we are using a certain key center to improvise, can we use notes outside that key? Can we have modulations?  or we should only use notes in the key?

Phone sound.
Love the c maj! The idea of just going up the scale but with octave displacement is simple and wonderful.

Db — Still in the idea of scale, but quite a different feeling from the c maj. Love the introduction of double stops, and the fact that you don’t resolve at the end.

D — Really cool contrasting ideas. I like the changes in registers, the feeling of call and response. Maybe this could have been a nice moment to introduce a little more rhythm. I love the freshness of this. Feels inspired.

Eb — A nice contrast to the previous movements in the opening — I wish that dense texture had continued; quite quickly we are back in the kind of lovely, contemplative feeling of the other movements. Which is nice, but is less of a contrast. I love the rising intervalic lines at the end! A Great ending.

E — Great to hear some atonality here! A total change of texture, wonderful. Love the arpeggios, and the transition from atonal to tonal is really powerful. Great ending, too!

F — Love the introduction of rhythm here. The simple melody is a great contrast to the previous movement.

Gb — Nice. I can feel that you’re a little less free in Gb than the other keys.

G — Great energy! Love the brevity, too.

Ab — Nice to hear the minor! A lovely melody. Did you improvise the melody? Very nice.

A — Great idea to have pizz! Love it. This could have continued longer, for me.

Bb — Your opening reminds me a bit of “Fratres”. Love the interrupted arpeggios. A clear and simple idea. Ending is fun!

B — Great opening, fun to have something spectacular like these rolled major triads. I like that it doesn’t resolve at the end.

C — Nice transition from B to C at the beginning of this one — nice how you linked the two keys. Loving the opening melody and the meditative quality. Nice that you’re returning to the idea that opened the entire set — the idea of the major scale. Great to “close the loop” like this. Love the harmonics at the end — this could have been an entire movement, exploring those high, breathy sounds. I almost would have wanted you to resolve to C at the very end, but it’s also pretty fun that you avoided that.

Really great job! To answer your question, when you’re using a certain key to improvise, the idea of the “key center” is meant to be loose, just a stimulus for your creativity, so yes, you’re welcome to use notes outside of the key, as you did for example in your E major improv. And yes, modulations are welcome as well, as long as they return to the home key.

Leo Sussman — Minor Second Improv — Flute

In practicing this framework for improvisation I found it challenging to move beyond the traditional tonal implications of whatever interval formed the basis for the improvisation. For example, when working with perfect 4ths or 5ths it was easy to hear everything as a dominant-tonic relationship. Similarly with the minor 2nd, as a monophonic instrumentalist I noticed myself leaning in to the associations with leading tones – both ascending and descending. Not that these traditional tonal implications are necessarily something to avoid (or perhaps even possible to avoid entirely), but one of my goals in further practice is to expand the potential range of roles that these intervals can play and not pigeonhole myself into narrow key relationships. I also found it helpful to improvise a short opening rhythm without pitches, and then launch an improvisation on my instrument using that rhythm idea as the basis in order to (hopefully) maintain better awareness of the development of my pitch ideas in time as discussed during the first session.

Lovely sound, and nice recording too. Maybe try adding a little reverb next time. I would have liked this to go on for longer. But you made a very compelling piece. Lovely! I’d like to hear you explore the idea of using only the interval, letting go of all questions of tonality. Just put one interval after another, see what happens. Lovely playing, and I do dig the brevity of what you did.

Shimon Gambourg — Tonal Harmony C Maj Thirds Ascending — Double Bass

I used the basic C major, thirds ascending version of your workout, and I feel it works well on bass given all the open strings I can use. I’ve never tried playing solo much, so this was a change to branch out a bit and figure out how to make something musical with just the bass. Thank you for that!

Nice sound! Love how you recorded this. This is great — it brings so much more richness to the idea of playing “in c major” to go through the diatonic chords, with secondary dominants, the way you do here. And I can really hear the focus it’s bringing to your ideas. I did notice that in the first cycle up the thirds, you played D Major rather than D minor. This is of course okay (you can do whatever you want and go where your ear leads you) , but within this idea of using tonal harmony with diligence, I think it detracts from the clarity of what’s happening. We lose, for a moment, the connection to the home key. Also, I don’t quite hear your F major after that — it’s a bit murky. I do hear the A minor after that, though. If you want to get that feeling of D major, then i’d suggest using it as a secondary dominant to G major. I’d love to hear you play with this idea of tonal harmony without going through a strict pattern of chords. The practice sheet I sent is an exercise, but when we improvise, the goal is to be able to choose chords (and lead to them with secondary dominants) at will. So, instead of going C — E — G — B0 — D — F — A — C, you could go C — E — A — E — C — F— D, or any other sequence, and use as many secondary doms as you want leading to each. The second cycle is a little unclear as well. Don’t get me wrong, this is really lovely playing, and your musicality shines through. I love it, and I want to encourage you to go for even more clarity in your choice of chords. It’ll only increase the power of the music.

Brandon Choi — Maj Second — Trumpet

I selected the major second interval for my improvisation and had a preconceived intention of having steady tempo and rhythmic aspects. The rhythm manifested itself as a sort of 5/8 clave, and the tempo was, in general, steady throughout (barring inconsistencies in my own rhythmic conception). The major second interval was prominent throughout, but in the middling sections, I highlighted wider intervals: the major sixth and tritone. I suppose I can justify this retroactively by saying that they are respectively built of consecutive major seconds and are thus a sort of elision, but in my opinion this would be lazy of me. In the moment, I was seeking a way to break up what felt like homogeneity in regards to harmony and melodic content, but I think there are better ways to do this that retain the major second theme in a more literal sense. In all, I feel that I stayed true to the constraints I placed on this “composition,” and I felt that I was able to maintain cohesion throughout through use of several motives, namely the clave pattern, and the “echo” motif of the first phrase.

Sound is good — try a little reverb next time. Love that this is rhythmic, and I can really hear you playing with clear ideas that emerge from the major second. Feels really fresh. Your consideration about getting contrast is excellent, and important. I particularly like how you go in and out of dense textures. I think the less dense sections could at times have had even more space to them. Overall this is excellent, and I didn’t mind the use of the major sixth and tritone at all. But you’re right, you could’ve achieve this contrast through other means. For example, you could have played a major sixth, then played another major sixth a whole tone up or down — C Ab D Bb for example. This would satisfy the requirement that each tone be paired with another that is a whole step away, while breaking up the sequence of the pairing. Another idea would be to create a call and response — play a high figure, then respond to it in the low register. Yet another idea (again, to break up monotony) would be to change time signatures. You created some nice 5/8 ideas; how about extending it to 6/8, then to 7/8? That could be really interesting right there. Anyway, really nice work with this. I think this is a cool avenue for you to explore.

Yevanhelina But — Major 3rds — Piano

I’m just a beginner in improvisation, so I chose only one of the points (improvising using interval) . I chose M3

Love the opening! Very cool idea to create these aggregate harmonies out of the arpeggiated major thirds in your left hand. I like the way you’ve created contrast and development. The rising figures lead really nicely to The C-Eb diad (even though that’s a minor 3rd, not a major 3rd) . You create memorable ideas through repetition, which is great! I would have liked this to go on for longer — 4 min would have been great. I think there’s a lot of potential for you here, it brings out your inner creativity and musicality. Congratulations!

Han Geul Lee — 5ths — Piano (rhodes)

As a pianist with a mainly classical background, I felt apprehensive toward improvising with key centers and modulations due to a total lack of experience improvising in such a way. However, acknowledging my own strength as more of a visual/tactile learner I decided to utilize intervals (5ths, in this case) as a main source of improvisatory inspiration.

In this piece I began the improvisation with an imitation of the sound made upon obtaining a coin in super mario bros (although it is originally an interval of a fourth upwards) and used traspositions of it as a basis for melodic material.

I then introduce oscillating 5ths as ostinato material that provides some rhythmic backbone as I continue developing the coin noise motif. This ostinato figure only transposes up and down one or two half steps mainly due to my fear of venturing out and possibly making mistakes.

I layer the oscillations with another on top, circling in and out of octave unisions with half/whole step transpositions of its own. Through this process, I also introduce both minor 2nd and minor 9th as a sub-motif without digressing from the 5ths material. Towards the end it was possible to delve further into the minor 2nd/9th idea without feeling too abrupt, and given a longer time limit I feel that I could have easily transitioned into more of a minor2nd/9th theme, without an abrupt break in the soundscape.

Nice recording. This has so much atmosphere. Love the opening, it immediately drew me in. The transition to the left-hand accompaniment groove is really nice too — I particularly enjoyed the patience you had with it. You took your time and left space to let ideas settle. Your right hand ideas are very persuasive, and I can hear the amount of care and attention you’re bringing to each note — that makes it really riveting to listen to. Loving the transition out of the left-hand ostinato section. Felt very organic, and it was nice to suddenly have a little more chaos and dissonance — felt like a meaningful arrival point. Good ending, too — I just wish I could have heard the final chord ring out instead of it being cut off. Overall this is excellent, and it’s clear that this exercise allows your creativity and musicality to shine through.

Mark Filatov — Improv over Chord Changes — Piano

So, I decided to choose the path of a key center where I used a basic ballad chord progression (I-vi- IV- V7). The home is D major and then I modulated to F major, and then created (I think there’s a term for this) a “false modulation” where there was supposed to be Ab major but I decided to set the modulation to its parallel minor which is f minor, then a bunch of 7ths that end up resolving back in the key of D Major at the end. I repeated the cycle with a varied rhythm to make it more interesting. My process of improve is more based on chords than melody even though you may hear some articulations of the keys in the chord somewhat highlight a melody. Hope you enjoy it.

Iphone recording — if you can record with better mics that’s great, but otherwise, no problem. As far as the music, it’s great that you investigated the idea of using tonality, and specifically harmonic changes within keys. However, to me, this doesn’t seem very improvised — it sounds more like a sequence of chords, which, since you repeat it, seems pre-planned. What we’re trying to do in this course is to work on improvisation first and foremost — the spontaneous creation of music. In your case, what I suggest is that you go for something simpler; for example, creating an improvisation with only one interval. This will force you to create melodies, which are lacking in this example, and if you focus on keeping it simple, I think you’ll be able to find true spontaneity in there as well.

Kesem Ninio — Tonal (C) and Interval (Min 3) — Trombone

I am attaching two recordings I made this week (on trombone). In one I explored the idea of improvising only on one key and I chose C major. The second one is on the interval of minor third. I tried to keep both very rhythmic. 
As I was improvising this week, I also explored other keys and intervals (didn’t get to play tonal harmony yet) and tried to make a lot of contrasts. 

Nice recording. The first piece, exploring the C major key center, is lovely. I like that you’re using rhythm, and I particularly like the opening ascending phrase. It’s so strong that I think it could have beared repeating. Returning to an idea, and repeating it, is a great way to build expectation and structure into your improvisation. I would encourage you, as you’re improvising, to keep an ear out for ideas that you like, and then to consider repeating them. Maybe, if you can remember them, returning to them later, too. I appreciate the contrast you brought to this, and you’re playing beautifully; but I would have loved for this to go on longer. The second piece, using minor 3rds, is excellent. I particularly enjoyed your use of repetition here — the way you repeat phrases, or just parts of a phrase. It makes your listener ask themselves “what’s he going to do this time?” and it really keeps us engaged. Loved the brassy ending — great that you used some of the timbral variety of the trombone here. Same as the first piece, I would have loved for it to on longer. I also appreciated the points of rest, where the constant motion stopped and a phrase resolved.

Rico Jones — Key Centers — Saxophone

In this improvisation I wanted to allow the melodies in my ear flow freely.
I really tried to focus on my inner voice while I improvised.The initial harmonic theme started in D ionian / lydian  and moved to Eb dorian then to E ionian and to F dorian etc. The improvisation ended in less focused frame of mind than when I started the exploration. ( I remembered the time limit and rushed to end it.) 
I need to work on better pacing while creating confidently defined melodic development. 

Beautiful playing, Rico! And nice sound, too. I love how expressive this is, and you have a killer tone on the horn. Right away I can really feel how this wide-open key center constraint is encouraging you to flow freely and focus on expressing yourself, which is ultimately what we’re here for.
Powerful opening here, clearly establishing C Maj concert. Then the transition to C#min feels really natural. I heard the move to D Maj, and then the quick move to Eb min. Later, your move from F Maj to F# min, with the introduction of F aug, is particularly convincing. Generally speaking, it feels like moving through the keys like this really works for you, creatively. If you did this regularly at all, I’m sure you would find your pacing quite quickly.
About melodic development: I agree with you that it could be better defined. As it is, I hear you defining the harmony quite clearly, with quite a bit of arpeggiation, but there are few real melodies that arise. I would encourage you to listen to what comes up, and if there’s a germ of a melody, grab hold of it, be patient with it, nurture it and see if it grows. Melody is a powerful way of getting your audience to follow the story you’re telling.
In many ways, the idea with this key center approach is to provide a context for other things, like melody and rhythm, to arise. The key center sits around these things, like a bowl, and gives them structure, but we do need to tend to them as well as to the key.
I really enjoyed this. Congratulations again on a powerfully expressive track.

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