Melody: The Lost Art?

Melody: The Lost Art?

Robert Washut


Note: This article is a slightly altered version of the original, which first appeared in the IAJE Jazz Research Proceedings sometime in the 1990s.

The evolution of the art of jazz improvisation has undergone a curious metamorphosis, closely mirroring developments in classical music. As the Western art music tradition evolved from pure melody (Gregorian chant) to dodecaphony (12-tone music) and beyond, jazz improvisation has witnessed developments ranging from simple ornamentation (New Orleans tradition) to complex abstraction (“sheets of sound,” etc.). The complexity of much contemporary jazz derives in part from the advanced technical facility of its practitioners. From the standpoint of jazz education, or more specifically, the pedagogy of jazz improvisation, it is this writer’s impression that many of the younger generation of players, most of whom are products of institutional instruction, have subscribed to the school of “flash versus substance.” These young improvisors, sporting both prodigious technique and impressive command of scalar resources and “licks,” have seemingly turned the art of jazz improvisation into a science. Conspicuous by its absence is melody.

Many of the earliest jazz improvisors were essentially “ear” players, consciously unaware of harmonic considerations. These musicians were masters of embellishment: the decoration of an existing melody. As the American popular song tradition was adapted, melody remained important, but harmonic considerations gradually gained a foothold, eventually attaining pre-eminence. Jazz improvisation became a primarily vertical proposition, with improvisers becoming more and more fascinated with the possibilities of complex chord changes. Acknowledging the fact that there has always been a small (albeit devoted) cadre of “melodists,” it nevertheless appears to this writer that many students of jazz improvisation have opted for a harmonic-based approach, one that more readily accommodates their apparent propensity for technical display. It is my intention to make a case for a return to melody, the seemingly lost art. The following suggestions are submitted as a means of encouraging the development of the melodic aspects of jazz improvisation.



Learn Standard Songs

So often the first concerns in jazz improvisation instruction involve the association of the “correct” scale(s) or pattern with the chord in question. Although this approach is not without merit, it is my belief that melody should be the first area of exploration. I have encountered numerous students, facile with chord-scales and equipped with an arsenal of glib licks, who cannot play the melodies to many tunes. Consequently, it is my contention that jazz improvisation might be learned and taught through songs (or tunes). The acquisition of a vast body of standard songs (developing a repertoire) is an essential goal of the improvising musician, providing a wealth of melodic material for assimilation.

The first step in approaching a new tune is learning the melody. Instead of opening a ‘fake” book students should learn the melody initially by ear, aurally transcribing it from recordings. (By aural transcription I mean that no notation is involved.) Recordings by great jazz vocalists (Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, et al.) provide ideal sources, often replete with wonderful examples of nuance and phrasing. Moreover, students will discover the lyrics. Lester Young maintained that an awareness of the lyrics afforded the improviser an insight into the song’s character. Recordings by melodic instrumentalists (Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, et al.) are equally useful.

When a recording of a tune to be learned has been selected, the student should replay (or “loop”) the melodic presentation until it has been sufficiently internalized. As the student sings along s/he should “finger” their instrument, mentally envisioning the notes being played. Once the student is able to sing/finger along with the recording of the melody by memory, s/he should play along, paying close attention to (copying) all details of nuance, articulation, and phrasing. Learning the melody in this fashion greatly assists in the development of phrasing concepts and jazz vocabulary. Moreover, the process of aural transcription aids in retention: students will be able to remember melodies more easily than if learning tunes from the notated page. They will have earned it! The student may then want to compare the recorded version of the melody with a reputable lead sheet, noting differences in key, rhythm, etc., and examining ways in which the original was paraphrased or altered.

The next step involves the aural transposition of the newly acquired melody to several different keys. The student might practice this in two ways: 1) Play the melody beginning on randomly selected starting pitches; 2) After determining the relationship of the starting pitch to the key of the tune, play the melody around the circle of 5ths or some other arrangement of keys. The benefits of aural transposition are significant. The student develops his/her aural skills while experiencing the “feel” and sound of different keys. Furthermore, the fear associated with difficult keys will likely gradually diminish. [It should be noted at this point that the use of nursery rhymes is an excellent alternative to standard tunes, depending on the student’s level of experience. These melodies are simple (mostly conjunct and diatonic, with narrow ranges) and most likely have already been learned (by ear!) by the student. The pamphlet accompanying Jamey Aebersold’s “How to Improvise” DVD has valuable information on this subject.]




Thematic fidelity is a rare quality, as many jazz musicians use the song as a mere springboard for unrelated improvisational excursions. The song’s melody is the most direct source for communication with the average listener, providing the improviser with an abundance of material for development.

Improvising on the theme should be the first stage of improvisation. Lee Konitz has asserted that “…first and foremost you have to adhere to the song for a much, much longer period of time. You have to find the meaning of embellishment before going on to create new melodies.” (Down Beat, December 1985: pp. 54-56) Embellishment is a kind of musical paraphrase. To paraphrase in the literary sense is to “put into one’s own words;” to paraphrase a melody is to “play it in one’s own way.” The student should strive to transform (or personalize) the theme, making it his or her “own.”

The process of embellishment (thematic transformation) should begin once the melody has been thoroughly internalized, with the student comfortable in several key areas. Avoiding harmonic concerns initially, the student should paraphrase repeated choruses of the melody, using the internalized model as an “anchor” or a “life raft.” Adhering to the melody in this way helps the student avoid getting lost in the song’s form. In Konitz’s words, “…the security of the song itself can relieve much of the anxiety of jumping into the unknown.” (Konitz, p. 54) The student can practice melodic paraphrasing with play-along recordings, rhythm section or piano accompaniment, or with only a metronome or a drum “app” such as Drum Genius. The advantage of improvising on the melody with harmonic support is that the student will be subconsciously connecting the melody to the underlying chord progression.

Embellishment implies ornamentation: the adorning or decorating of a given theme. However, a melody can be undressed as well as dressed up. The omission of notes is equally effective as the addition of notes (e.g., Miles Davis; see the rest/play technique suggested below). Students should practice both approaches. Some possible embellishing techniques, to be practiced individually and in combination, include both rhythmic variations (syncopation, metric displacement, etc.) and ornamental devices (grace notes, passing/neighbor tones, enclosures, double chromatic approach tones, turns, appoggiaturas, etc.). The student should start simply. As confidence grows, s/he could rely less and less on the melody, adding ideas that are heard in juxtaposition with it.

A good rule of thumb, at least in the early stages, is to avoid playing anything one cannot sing. By helping to connect the ear with the fingers, the “sing/play” procedure helps enable the student to hear everything s/he plays. Moreover, a more lyrical approach to phrasing likely will be developed. The recordings of Louis Armstrong provide marvelous examples of how the instrument can be a direction extension of the voice.

Additional, more advanced melodic transformation techniques, useful for stimulating imagination, include the alteration of tempo, meter, and rhythmic feel/groove. Changing keys often will elicit different ideas as well. Temporal variations may be explored by using the “play/rest” procedure. While mentally singing the melody throughout, play two bars and rest for two bars; repeat. Then try odd numbered phrase groupings: play one bar and rest two; repeat, etc. Mix up phrase groupings. This technique, in conjunction with melody embellishment, helps develop both concepts of “space” (silence) and “phrasing against the grain” of the tune. It also enables the student to gain a general sense of security with the feeling of phrase structure.

Once the purely melodic possibilities have been satisfactorily examined, the student might explore the harmonic underpinning of structurally important melody tones (those that are stressed metrically, agogically, or by pitch accent). After an examination of the basic chord structure of the song, the student should try to arpeggiate, out of tempo, the corresponding chord down from (and back up to) the given melody note.  This is especially effective on tunes like Stella by Starlight and All the Things You Are, where the long melody notes function like quasi-guide tones. The connection of all important melody notes to their corresponding chords will avail a more vertical approach to embellishment.

Addendum (4/14/22) - There is a newly published book called Jazz Improvisation Using Simple Melodic Embellishment by Mike Titlebaum. This is an excellent resource that systematically addresses the concepts above.

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