Photo: Unsplash/Tadas Mikuckis

Basics of Jazz Improv: Piano Improvisation Explained (Featuring Heart and Soul)

There’s something about jazz that drew me in as a musician and piano player. More than anything, I’ve always found the idea of being able to take a song and then add your own signature on it through improvisation to be quite liberating.

Below, I will go into the basics of understanding jazz improvisation, how to use the C major scale and jazz variations to improvise, and how to apply that to a song by using the ubiquitous Heart and Soul  as an example. In this video example, the basic Heart and Soul melody is played and then improvised on in the key of C.

Heart and Soul Jazz Improv Duet

Heart and Soul  is a great example to use for the basics of jazz improvisation not just because it’s so well known but because it’s in the key of C. This means that you can improvise over the song using variations of the C major scale, which is one of the easiest scales to learn.

What Is Jazz Improvisation?

In a general sense, jazz improvisation is the spontaneous creation of unique melodies over a cycle of chords being played. But when you start looking at how  to improvise, you’ll see that it revolves around using different scales and motifs.

Motifs are short musical phrases that you can develop in different ways. For example, you could create a motif by playing a few notes over and over, playing the phrase in an evolving sequence by starting it on different notes, or even playing a phrase slower, faster, or in completely different rhythms.

When you begin to improvise in a song, you need to consider the key of the song and the chords being played. This will give you an idea of what scales and notes you can use during an improvisation.

Jazz Improv: Starting With Major Scales

Major scales are the foundation for all other scales, and it’s an important place to start for jazz improvisation. All major scales are structured in the same manner. There are eight notes with half steps occurring between steps 3 and 4 as well as steps 7 and 8.

We are going to focus on the C major scale, which is constructed as follows.

C Major Scale in Steps

C Major Scale in Steps

What’s nice about the C major scale is that there are no sharps or flats, which means that you just have to hit all of the white keys in a row from C to C. Because Heart and Soul  revolves around these four chords—C major, A minor, F major, G major—you are safe using any notes of the C major scale when you improvise. However, while playing the C major scale is pretty simple, it’s not going to sound very jazzy until you practice around with some motifs.

Here’s an easy example to try using a motif from the C major scale. You can see how this motif was used in the Heart and Soul improvisation video clip below.

So how do you play this sequence motif? Starting on the C note, hit the following keys in order: C, D, E, then D, E, F, then E, F, G and so on until you finish the motif.

C, D, E Sequence Motif

C Major Sequence Motif

Jazz Improv: Some C Scale Variations and Passing Tones

You may have noticed in the Heart and Soul  video example that more than just the white keys from the C major scale were used during the improvisation. This is because there are different scales and passing tones you can use as variations of the C major scale to give a jazzier feel to improvisation.

Before going into some of the different C major scale variations that you can use, it’s important to understand the concept of passing tones and target tones. Because jazz improvisation revolves around motifs, there are notes that you can use during  the motif that would not work when ending  the motif. In other words, there are certain target notes that you want to play as the last note of your motif depending on the chord.

For example, if you are playing a C major chord—C, E, G—while you can use practically any note throughout your motif, especially if they’re played quickly, by ending on a C, E or G note, it will come together well because the target note is ending on a chord tone (a note that is reflected in the chord being played).

Here’s an example of a motif that uses a number of passing tones. You can see how the motif comes together at the end because it ends on the C note.

Now let’s look at some of the jazz scales that you can derive from the C major scale. Below are a few important ones to keep in mind when you look at improvising.

C Pentatonic Scale

Pentatonic scales are a popular scale in jazz improvisation. You can learn a lot about the scale simply from its name: penta meaning five and tonic meaning tone or note. As you may have guessed, the Pentatonic scale is a five-note scale that is constructed as follows—1, 2, 3, 5, 6. Here’s how it looks for the key of C.

C Pentatonic Scale

C Pentatonic Scale

C Blues Scale

The Blues scale is a must when considering jazz improvisation, and it is very popular due to the funky sound it produces. The reason that you get the blues/funk sound is from the flat 3, 5 and 7 notes in the scale, which is constructed as follows: 1, flat 3, 4, flat 5, 5, flat 7. Here’s how it looks for the key of C.

C Blues Scale

C Blues Scale

Keep in mind that the Blues scale is typically designed for use with Dominant 7th chords, which are different than major chords due to a flat 7, a typical jazz voicing. However, because Heart and Soul  does not use Dominant chords, you will want to be careful and use the Eb, Gb and Bb as passing tones (don’t end a motif on those notes!). Another useful jazz improvisation technique is to quickly slide from one note to another. Here’s an example of this being used from Eb to D in this video clip.

C Chromatic Scale

The Chromatic scale is a very useful scale in improvisation that can be particularly helpful in transitioning to another scale or motif. The Chromatic scale is fairly easy to pick up on because you hit all notes in a row in an ascending or descending order. Here’s how it look for the key of C.

C Chromatic Scale

C Chromatic Scale

Here’s an example of how this is used in Heart and Soul in this video clip.

Jazz improvisation is a whole lot of fun whether you’re a serious piano player or just messing around with a song like Heart and Soul. Ultimately, though, it takes practice to start getting a feel for the different scales and motifs that you can play. But it’s never too late to start. So grab a friend, and start having some fun improvising to Heart and Soul.

Experienced in digital marketing, branding, content development and search engine optimization (SEO). I have a B.A. from UC Davis in Economics (French minor), I am a member of the Cal Aggie Alumni Association and I am a Beta Epsilon alumni. I have a broad range of interests that include playing jazz piano, reading, writing, learning about history, eating good food (my grandma's gnocchi is a favorite) and traveling.

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Basics of Jazz Improv: Piano Improvisation Explained (Featuring Heart and Soul)

There’s something about jazz that drew me in as a musician and piano player. More than anything, I’ve always found the idea of being able to take a song and then add your own signature on it through improvisation to be quite liberating.

Below, I will go into the basics of understanding jazz improvisation, how to use the C major scale and jazz variations to improvise, and how to apply that to a song by using the ubiquitous Heart and Soul  as an example. In this video example, the basic Heart and Soul melody is played and then improvised on in the key of C.

Heart and Soul Jazz Improv Duet

Heart and Soul  is a great example to use for the basics of jazz improvisation not just because it’s so well known but because it’s in the key of C. This means that you can improvise over the song using variations of the C major scale, which is one of the easiest scales to learn.

What Is Jazz Improvisation?

In a general sense, jazz improvisation is the spontaneous creation of unique melodies over a cycle of chords being played. But when you start looking at how  to improvise, you’ll see that it revolves around using different scales and motifs.

Motifs are short musical phrases that you can develop in different ways. For example, you could create a motif by playing a few notes over and over, playing the phrase in an evolving sequence by starting it on different notes, or even playing a phrase slower, faster, or in completely different rhythms.

When you begin to improvise in a song, you need to consider the key of the song and the chords being played. This will give you an idea of what scales and notes you can use during an improvisation.

Jazz Improv: Starting With Major Scales

Major scales are the foundation for all other scales, and it’s an important place to start for jazz improvisation. All major scales are structured in the same manner. There are eight notes with half steps occurring between steps 3 and 4 as well as steps 7 and 8.

We are going to focus on the C major scale, which is constructed as follows.

C Major Scale in Steps

C Major Scale in Steps

What’s nice about the C major scale is that there are no sharps or flats, which means that you just have to hit all of the white keys in a row from C to C. Because Heart and Soul  revolves around these four chords—C major, A minor, F major, G major—you are safe using any notes of the C major scale when you improvise. However, while playing the C major scale is pretty simple, it’s not going to sound very jazzy until you practice around with some motifs.

Here’s an easy example to try using a motif from the C major scale. You can see how this motif was used in the Heart and Soul improvisation video clip below.

So how do you play this sequence motif? Starting on the C note, hit the following keys in order: C, D, E, then D, E, F, then E, F, G and so on until you finish the motif.

C, D, E Sequence Motif

C Major Sequence Motif

Jazz Improv: Some C Scale Variations and Passing Tones

You may have noticed in the Heart and Soul  video example that more than just the white keys from the C major scale were used during the improvisation. This is because there are different scales and passing tones you can use as variations of the C major scale to give a jazzier feel to improvisation.

Before going into some of the different C major scale variations that you can use, it’s important to understand the concept of passing tones and target tones. Because jazz improvisation revolves around motifs, there are notes that you can use during  the motif that would not work when ending  the motif. In other words, there are certain target notes that you want to play as the last note of your motif depending on the chord.

For example, if you are playing a C major chord—C, E, G—while you can use practically any note throughout your motif, especially if they’re played quickly, by ending on a C, E or G note, it will come together well because the target note is ending on a chord tone (a note that is reflected in the chord being played).

Here’s an example of a motif that uses a number of passing tones. You can see how the motif comes together at the end because it ends on the C note.

Now let’s look at some of the jazz scales that you can derive from the C major scale. Below are a few important ones to keep in mind when you look at improvising.

C Pentatonic Scale

Pentatonic scales are a popular scale in jazz improvisation. You can learn a lot about the scale simply from its name: penta meaning five and tonic meaning tone or note. As you may have guessed, the Pentatonic scale is a five-note scale that is constructed as follows—1, 2, 3, 5, 6. Here’s how it looks for the key of C.

C Pentatonic Scale

C Pentatonic Scale

C Blues Scale

The Blues scale is a must when considering jazz improvisation, and it is very popular due to the funky sound it produces. The reason that you get the blues/funk sound is from the flat 3, 5 and 7 notes in the scale, which is constructed as follows: 1, flat 3, 4, flat 5, 5, flat 7. Here’s how it looks for the key of C.

C Blues Scale

C Blues Scale

Keep in mind that the Blues scale is typically designed for use with Dominant 7th chords, which are different than major chords due to a flat 7, a typical jazz voicing. However, because Heart and Soul  does not use Dominant chords, you will want to be careful and use the Eb, Gb and Bb as passing tones (don’t end a motif on those notes!). Another useful jazz improvisation technique is to quickly slide from one note to another. Here’s an example of this being used from Eb to D in this video clip.

C Chromatic Scale

The Chromatic scale is a very useful scale in improvisation that can be particularly helpful in transitioning to another scale or motif. The Chromatic scale is fairly easy to pick up on because you hit all notes in a row in an ascending or descending order. Here’s how it look for the key of C.

C Chromatic Scale

C Chromatic Scale

Here’s an example of how this is used in Heart and Soul in this video clip.

Jazz improvisation is a whole lot of fun whether you’re a serious piano player or just messing around with a song like Heart and Soul. Ultimately, though, it takes practice to start getting a feel for the different scales and motifs that you can play. But it’s never too late to start. So grab a friend, and start having some fun improvising to Heart and Soul.

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