When I’m recording and improvising live, I love the power
that comes from playing melodies in octaves with my right hand. But I
always try to use them with taste and moderation. Just like a trumpeter
playing high notes for too long, or a guitarist serving up an endless
array of power chords, a keyboardist who simply pummels out octave
melodies can make listeners bored and desensitized.
Many of the tracks on my new trio album Completely
feature sections of octave melodies played on both a Yamaha grand piano
and a Nord Electro 3HP processed through a vintage Leslie 122 speaker.
But regardless of which instrument I played, I employed both the octave
melodies I love as well as a number of strategies to help color the
space between each octave hit. These helped me use octaves in a
way that felt flexible and nuanced, rather than violent and repetitive.
Here are a few examples to help you vary the texture, movement, and
overall vibe of your own octave melodies.
1. Simple Octaves
Ex. 1 starts off in D minor and shows a
simple octave melody that stretches over four bars. This is similar to
something I might play while soloing over my original tune “Problem With
the Game,” a modal jam with a heavy rock groove.
2. Adding Single Notes
Ex. 2 makes things more interesting by adding
single notes between each octave hit. The emphasis should be on the
octave itself, with the note after serving more as an echo than
as a strong melodic statement of its own. In this example, the
intermediary notes are mostly a perfect fifth up from the bottom note of
the octave, an easy interval to play using the second or third
finger—whichever feels more natural.
3. Adding Triplets and Sixteenth Notes
Another strategy is to add triplet or sixteenth-note fall-offs after each octave hit, as shown in Ex. 3. Again, the emphasis falls on the initial octave with a smooth transition to the following two or three notes.
4. Adding Up and Down Runs
The real fun comes when you begin to mix up the directions of the “mini runs” in between octave hits, as in Ex. 4.
Just like Ex. 3, the spaces between each quarter-note are filled with
triplet or sixteenth-note sequences, but this time, some ascend while
others descend. This adds yet another set of colors to your octave
5. Putting It Together
Ex. 5 is how I might reinterpret the original
octave melody, using tools from all the previous examples. Remember that
the in-between notes sometimes stray from the mostly diatonic tonality
in the rest of this lesson. Don’t be afraid to experiment with altered
fives, nines, and other chord tones when filling space between your
chord melody notes. In my experience, the more “in” your octave melody
itself is, the more fun it can be to play handfuls of “out” notes in between them, and vice versa.
Less Can Be More
“Playing melodies in octaves can be powerful when you’re
improvising. Just be mindful of how often you use them,” says New
York-based keyboardist and composer (and former Senior Editor at Keyboard) Michael Gallant. Learn more at gallantmusic.com.