Octaves with Finesse
By Michael Gallant
Fri, 21 Jun 2013
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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 melody palette.


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.

 
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