Improvisation and Dissonance in Music


I can sometimes get annoyed at “original music” elitists. Don’t get me wrong; original music and creativity is what it’s all about. Otherwise music would be pretty boring and sound the same. Some of it is. Whether this is for a purpose or unintentionally is debatable. I’m not the most prolific composer; however, it’s been years since anyone’s turned their nose up at me for playing covers. My music is identified through my obsession for getting parts “correct” from a recording along with a strong desire to infuse my own voice into anything I play.

Students are often intimidated about playing their own ideas.

Often they like the idea of writing their own songs. They look up to their heroes, whether it be Taylor Swift, Tony Iommi, or Ludwig Van Beethoven. The obstacle here is a false pretense that he/she must reach a certain musical level to be creative or successful. My reply is always the question, “What are you waiting for?”. Improvisation, in effect, *is* the music.

Being a weak improviser is a bit of a cop-out. We all improvise every day when in activities working, eating, exercising, relating with others, etc. We have a constant flow of decisions to make. It’s necessary to choose what actions will reap the best results in our current situation. Picking the best tone of voice in reply to others. Choosing the best vocabulary to be the most clear about our answer. Being considerate of people’s feelings and level of understanding. We make decisions balancing our work vs. play.


Are you going to lunch or taking smaller breaks so that you have the energy to exercise after work? Have you conveyed enough expectation to your band members that you will communicate about scheduling in a timely manner? It’s all about improvising, making all of the seemingly unrelated elements work together productively. These are all examples of teaching/learning “life through music.” Playing music necessitates digging in and being creative, finding an abundance of metaphors for how to run our lives. 

Originals or covers?

On one hand we have the musician who is most impressed with music that others have written. To listen to a Duke Ellington piece of music, some musicians find that a recording really speaks to them. He/she may feel the necessity to recreate note-for-note the form of the piece to recreate the beauty of the piece. Another finds it necessary to recreate the feel and chord changes of the piece, but apply stylistic “voice” to the improvised parts.

Yet another musician interprets the composition as having a meaning or focus; this musician makes a decision to change the chords of the song to reflect the projected “meaning” of the composition, and this person decides to take only a brief motif or phrase from the original composition, present it in a different context, and change the style of the music. This is, in effect, allowing interpretation from the other musicians in the ensemble. Indeed, something as simple as changing the instrumentation of the ensemble forces the musicians to reinterpret how they perform the piece on their instruments. This is a perfect example of life throwing curveballs and we must improvise ways to make them work. 

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The improvising musician

Improvising musicians must have a good command of his/her tools and the statement he/she is attempting to make. Often we find that a sincere, focused attempt may appropriately substitute for the expected activity. Breaking the “rules” of expected behavior may yield a better result, and if the unexpected behavior fails the intended result, it may show an interesting workflow for the future.

Famous Improvisers.

Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane became famous for using, among other things, unique patterns of notes to be superimposed over what would considered standard chord changes, which would yield dissonance and some may consider unpleasant results, but would resolve at the end in a more consonant and pleasing way. He used patterns and rehearsed soloing ideas which may not be considered strict improvisation, but Coltrane studied and spent enormous amounts of time working out how to make these rehearsed patterns fit into a chord change in a more superimposed, unexpected way. There aren’t many artists considered more original than Trane. 

Let’s look at some techniques for using dissonance into one’s playing. First, let’s talk about consonance vs. dissonance. A basic idea for most modern music is to compose harmonies and melodies that point to a tonal center. We consider this the key of the piece of music. When we build chords and melodies that are mainly from one major scale, that major scale is the key of the piece:


Major Scale

The major scale is a pattern of notes. When we use the major scale formula, we leave out certain notes of the chromatic scale. Now the piece of music is geared toward the tonal center, or the key. We can build chords that use only notes of this scale. Alternating every other note of the scale creates chords over of each note of the scale.

Consider these diatonic chords..When we use diatonic chords, the melody notes that sound consonant are the notes of the diatonic major scale. 

We can use notes outside of the scale, but they will sound dissonant unless we utilize patterns and tendencies that show these outside notes to be on purpose, not mistakes. Passing tones, enclosures, Coltrane changes, superimposed harmonies, bebop scales, etc., can all be used for outside notes.  

A good improviser can use these and other techniques to add dissonant notes to a melody, as well as to improvisational solos over the chord changes of the tune. We’ll study these dissonance techniques in later lessons. 

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