Course Content & lesson overview

Before we start we should mention that the methods and presentation of material in this course is not always orthodox. The course covers material for improvisation by aural perception and to simplify presentation we have divided the study material into the usual musical categories but the course is designed for aural improvisation; it is not intended to teach conventional music theory or sight reading.


perhaps the most fundamental of the musical elements; rhythm is concerned with the pOSITION and duration of sound in time. Rhythm ‘shapes’ time.

Jazz is essentially a RHYTHMIC music and the rhythms used in jazz, are presented and analysed in a way which brings them under conscious as well as subconscious control. The results of these studies brings improvement in memorising as well as rhythmic improvisation. Rhythm is the most neglected aspect of jazz instruction because it is the most difficult to teach, but it is the core distinguishing feature of jazz so we present an exhaustive rhythmic commentary in every lesson.


IDIOMATIC features of a melody line are presented in a way which clarifies the characteristic differences in rhythmic STYLE. This is an important consideration when we realise that we only have 12 notes to work with. The study material goes from simple melodies through to advanced improvisation concentrating on jazz interpretation, swing and continuity.


Harmony is developed from simple beginnings to advanced sounds, the method of presentation is such that AURAL recognition is achieved in a progressive manner. We demonstrate how modern refinements are built from simple basic structures and why certain chord sounds have evolved. Conscious understanding is thus developed alongside aural discrimination.

The course is not instrument specific but we do cover the method of chord note distribution to obtain the best characteristic SOUND for each chord and progression. The layouts are applicable to all multi-note instruments but also provide essential understanding for other instruments.


Jazz improvisation is based on the structure of the jazz ‘song’. Although these structures can be simple they are essential to understand if creative self expression is to be communicated to a listening audience. The tradition of jazz embodies both the songs and the players.

Apart from the rhythmic delineation of style, the big difference between classical music and jazz is that classical music reinterprets the composer's inspiration whereas jazz is inspired spontaneous composition. Such spontaneity must have a reference framework; the jazz song.

The various forms of the jazz song, which can originate in folk, popular and often, theatre music, are recommended for practice to enhance enjoyment while illustrating chord progressions and the lesson detail.


In spontaneous self expressive performances the musical sub-components of volume, accentuation, together with texture, timbre and tone quality and all aspects of dynamics are just as important as the actual pitches used.

To quote a well known cliché 'It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it'! The lessons will stress the importance of listening and imitating to appreciate the subtle nature of dynamics and jazz rhythm.

Learning - psychology and cognitive science

The psychological aspects of music are of particular importance for improvisation where subconscious activity dominates performance. Insights from cognitive science are used to explain the processes at work during improvisation. Most lessons involve advice and comment which is consistent with our understanding of psychology and cognitive science.

We suggest improvisation is based on recognisable patterns of sound and characteristic sound clusters are presented in each lesson. Thus, lessons will usually start with the study of harmony and the sound of particular chords. Melodic, rhythmic and structural material will then be developed from these chord sounds.


lesson 1

the concept of tonality & the sound of ‘the home base’

1.1 Tonality - the major scale. The piano keyboard, semitones, the chromatic scale, sharps and flats, modes, tetra chords, aural conditioning.

1.2 Harmony - thirds & chords. The importance of thirds, major and minor chords. Recognition and memory, singing and imagery. Chord voicing and spacings, inversions and doubled notes. Colour, variety and style.

1.3 Chord progressions - the essence of tonal music. Sound centres, tendencies and attractions. Basic harmonic patterns using the primary triads and their tendencies and attractions which sound right. Movement from and back to the home base.

1.4 Melody - the jazz sound & idiom. Jazz is rhythm. The chord sound with the jazz rhythm. Singing. Aural examples not sight reading tests. Songs not exercises.

1.5 Co-ordination - sound & smooth chord motion. Movement to the subdominant and the dominant and back home. Voice leading.

1.6 Rhythm – four to the bar & the rhythmic framework. Dance music. Beats, bars, accents, meter, time signatures, phrases, sections and structure. Swing and imitation.

lesson 2

the process of improvisation & moving patterns practice

2.1 Harmony - motion towards a cadence. Harmonic progressions with the secondary triads. Cadences, chord substitution and the importance of the chord notes..

2.2 Melody - harmonic rhythm & time keeping. playing with a moving chord sequence. Metronomes and effortless continuity.

2.3 Rhythm - four bar phrases, dancing, lyrics & breathing. Rhythmic four bar phrases in the blues, ragtime and theatre songs. Construction four bar phrases from lyrics and breathing. The importance of eighth notes.

2.4 Improvising - conscious practice & sub conscious performance. patterns in the brain. Understand, listen, practice, perform. Finger shapes and time feel. Try improvising.

2.5 practice - & practice. The practice schedule, fun and relaxation. No other way, just hard work.

2.6 Advice - inhibition & impatience. Confidence and wood-shedding.

The basics of music and improvisation have been covered in the first two lesson but all progress in music tends to produce a desire for further advancement, for more dramatic effects, for more sophistication. The material in the next lessons injects the simpler melodic patterns of lesson 1 and 2 with some ‘tricks’ which produce UNEXPECTEDNESS or surprise and therefore tend to attract the attention of the listener.

The two important concepts of improvisation are developed using the ear and familiarity to establish ‘sound finger patterns’ and ‘rhythmic time feel’.


lesson 3

ears, habits & ‘sound / finger patterns’

3.1 Harmony - hearing the chord changes. Listening for the ‘land marks’, the vehicle for improvisation. Getting the sound stuck in your head. The ‘big’ notes and ‘fit’.

3.2 Acoustics - the tempered scale & the ear. Conditioned ears.

3.3 Melody - appoggiaturas. Unessential notes and decoration of major and minor chords. Simple ‘rules’, dramatic effects. Dynamics. Reading makes the ear lazy. Fitting a pattern to a chord sequence.

3.4 Absorbing sounds - ‘sound / finger patterns’. Combination, recombination and displacement. Every jazzman’s habit. Typical melodic and harmonic material in presented progressively providing characteristic sound / finger patterns.

3.5 Rhythm - syncopation, rhythmic phrase building & repetition. Anticipation, delay. Dotted and tied notes. Tension and release.

3.6 Advice - progress & motivation. Steady self development. Not an ‘aptitude’ or a ‘gift’ but motivation to practice.

lesson 4

ears, habits & ‘rhythmic time feel’

4.1 Harmony - the 7th chord. Forward urges. Recognised patterns, expectations and surprise. Dynamic flow and tendencies from ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’.

4.2 Technique - proficiency through practice. Familiarity. Embellishment. Songs not exercises and scales.

4.3 Melody - chromatic passing notes. Simple style development. Relaxed swing from simplicity not flowery profusion.

4.4 Rhythm – four bar phrases & ‘rhythmic time feel’. Developing ‘rhythmic time feel’. Methodical learning. Rhythm ‘trees’ of increasing complexity. Ties across the bar line.

4.5 Learning - establishing patterns in the brain. Conscious habit, unconscious playing. Vocabulary, grammar and idioms. Time is needed.

4.6 Advice - understanding music. Catalyses learning, technique, recognition, memory and confidence.

The next two lesson continue to add sophistication to the basics. As the rhythmic melody lines of jazz develop, there is usually a desire for harmonic advancement as well. This can take place in several ways, one of which involves adding extra notes to basic structures causing them to become less obvious as well as 'thicker' in sound and more interestingly harmonically ‘tensioned’.

Musical ‘know how’ can be used to enhance performance by using your head and focussing on continuity and pleasing the ear.

lesson 5

interesting sound trajectories

5.1 Harmony - the added 6th chord. Add interest, avoid monotony.

5.2 Chord progressions - basic patterns, ‘they all go the same old way’. Substitutes. Simplify to the basics and learn the exceptions. Down to the subdominant, jump to sharper dominants and resolve back through the dominants. Dissonant clashes and getting lost.

5.3 Melody - experiments & analysis. Experiment and initiative. Staccato legato, accents, speed, swing.

5.4 Rhythm - staying off the beat & phrase continuity. Rhythm as a pattern with continuity and swing. Trajectories, ground beat, juxtaposition and swing. playing with records, rhythm section and collective music.

5.5 Memory training - pattern recognition. Amazing recollection.

5.6 playing together - ‘have a go’. Collective complimentary contributions. Roles of the different instruments.


lesson 6

pleasing the ear

6.1 Harmony - the major 7th chord. Substitutes for more variety.

6.2 By-tonality - rootless chords. Modern sounds. Intonation and correctly pitching notes.

6.3 Melody - the leading note. 7th and 4th use with care.

6.4 Rhythm - drumming on your instrument. Jazz cannot be notated, it has to be imitated. Rhythm distinguishes style and is dominant in jazz. More 'off the beat' rhythms.

6.5 Work programme - ingraining sounds & habits. Any material as long as it is jazz. Transcribing solos.

6.6 Ear training - learning to listen. Association and tone colour.

So far you have been using both your ear and your head to create recognisable sound patterns. This is not easy and takes time because your ear has to be conditioned to a particular idiomatic jazz sound and which then has to be ingrained in your brain through extensive practice.

You will be frustrated and impatient because progress is never as fast as you had hoped. We’re now going to take a deep breath and consolidate and summarise the considerable amount of know how which has been acquired.

We are going to try to identify useful principles which may unify the material in the first 6 lessons and make it more coherent and easier to remember.

Finally before moving on to the blues we will summarise the particular way of playing that has been the focus of these initial lessons.

lesson 7

consolidation & summary

7.1 Harmony – the major 9th chord. Familiar structures. More substitutes.

7.2 Chord progressions – functional harmony. Tonic, dominant and sub-dominant. Moving bass lines.

7.3 Melody – chord decoration & part playing. Simplicity. Recognisable sound shapes and appropriate rhythmic idiom. Upper voice dominates.

7.4 Rhythm – swinging permutations of ingrained material. The dominant idea. Swing, four to the bar and juxtaposition.

7.5 Advice – basic simplicity. Extending the basic principles. Listen, imitate and practice.

7.6 The jazz tradition – a special way of playing. Armstrong, Bechet and Morton.


lesson 8

playing the changes

8.1 Harmony – the minor 7th chord. Familiar structures.

8.2 Chord progressions – IIm7 – V7 – I & the circle of 5ths. Ubiquitous sequences.

8.3 Melody – apply the basic principles. Decorating chords in a rhythmic idiom.

8.4 Rhythm – the emergence of the right note, place & time. Rests and rhythmic permutations. Making it sound like jazz.

8.5 Co-ordination – improvising over changing chords. Spontaneous trajectories. Key chord notes and signalling the change. Different types of jazz songs.

8.6 psychology – understand, practice & perform. There is no secret. Confidence and inhibition.

From the earliest blues singers to the latest pop groups we find widespread use of certain characteristic scales which are not the traditional major and minor, and seem to give an exciting sound and 'modern expression' to the music. Knowledge of these BLUES scales is a MUST for any musician desiring to play, write or improvise in JAZZ or related idioms. Learning these sounds by EAR through copying records is a tedious business, luckily this is unnecessary as they can be absorbed in a few weeks or so, on the conscious level.

lesson 9

blues theory & pentatonic scales

9.1 Style - two jazz styles; one rhythmic idiom. A different but characteristic sound.

9.2 Melody - the pentatonic scale. Major and minor scales. Major significance.

9.3 practical - absorb the blues idiom. Listen. Vocalise blue trajectories.

9.4 Harmony - basic chords & characteristic scales. Simple scale & chords, good rhythm.

9.5 Technical details - why it works! Relationship of the pentatonic scale to chords. Same scale changing chords.

9.6 Rhythm - Latin & early jazz rhythms. Simple syncopation and ‘secondary rag’.


lesson 10

blues practice & blues scales

10.1 Melody - the blues scale. The characteristic sound.

10.2 Harmony - the importance of the 7th. popular keys. The blues 7th chord, different purpose for the 7th.

10.3 Chord progressions - blues variations. The 12 bar blues and variations. Basic flexibility. Turnarounds.

10.4 Co-ordination - think scales. Stop thinking chords.

10.5 Rhythm - ‘setting up’ the ground beat. Drumming the timekeeping reference beat.

10.6 Characteristic timbre - ‘dirty’ blues. Originality and variety from sound modification.


lesson 11

blues legacy & achieving an effect

11.1 Melody - achieving an effect. New harmonic systems. Simple scale, strong sound.

11.2 Harmony - relationship between scale and chord. Most scale notes ‘fit’ the sound.

11.3 The Blues System - extending the effect. playing the same scales over moving chords.

11.4 Rhythm - additive polyrhythms & juxtaposition. Swing again. Thinking triplets.

11.5 Originality - individuality within a tradition. Your own sound but comprehensible to others.

11.6 progress Report - conclusion to part 1.

john p birchall

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