The intersection of pop songwriting and improvisation is a
powerful place to explore—one is quite necessarily structured, the
other seeks to break out of structures or at least push their limits.
Combining these two disciplines allows my pop and jazz personalities to
coexist in a sort of schizophrenic balance. It can be challenging to
bring songwriting and improvisation together, so here are a few ideas to
get you going in the right direction.
Click sheet music for larger images. Scroll down for audio examples.
1. Planting Seeds
Every song needs a starting point. Once you establish a solid foundation, you have unlimited potential for development. Ex. 1 is a four-bar chord progression and melody in the key of B minor.
This would be the verse section of a song, intended for singing with
lyrics. You can use this same chord progression as a vamp to improvise over in a solo or a group jam.
2. Leaving Space
Sometimes as players we forget one of the most important concepts in music: leaving space. (Otherwise known as “When not
to throw everything we’ve learned into the first two bars of a solo!”)
Allowing your improvisations to develop slowly will leave you more room
to build them towards excitement and craziness later on. Ex. 2 illustrates two-handed “open” voicings that will set the pace for what’s yet to come.
3. Melodic References
Don’t be shy about referencing a song’s melody in your
solo. An effective way to tie it in to your improvisation is to play the
melody’s original rhythms but change the notes, as seen in Ex. 3. This example also employs closed voicings in the left hand for variety.
4. Left-Hand Variations
How you accompany yourself with your left hand can really
change the feel of a solo. Alternating octaves on the root of each chord
like those in Ex. 4 create a solid undercurrent beneath the right hand melodic explorations based on the B blues scale.
5. Bringing It Home
The repetitive, right hand ostinato pattern in Ex. 5 creates
energy and tension while the chords change with syncopated accents
beneath it. The arc of your improvisation should lead to this conclusive
point in the journey, where the final crushing punch of your solo is
the climactic moment everyone is waiting for!
“Years of studying jazz and as well as
pop songwriters helped me develop these concepts. Remember that the more
music you listen to, the more influences you can draw from,” says Scott Chasolen,
acclaimed for his work in instrumental group Ulu, Pink Floyd tribute
band the Machine, and jazz-pop of his solo project SC3. Chasolen’s album
Portrait blends songwriting and improvisational elements. For more info visit scottchasolen.com.