Experimenting with Melody, Harmony, & Rhythm

“…it’s so hard to describe music other than the basic way to describe it – music is basically melody, harmony and rhythm – but I mean people can do much more with music than that. It can be very descriptive in all kinds of ways…”

~Charlie Parker from an interview conducted by Paul Desmond (1954)

The more I ponder Bird’s fundamental decomposition of music, the more I discover how aptly anything musical can be described by its harmony, melody, and rhythm. There’s still that lingering, intangible “much more,” the part that gives music meaning. But let’s save the “much more” for another post…

As improvisers, we strive to use our instruments as a medium for channelling the musical thoughts that are trapped inside our mind’s ear. When I sit down to practice, I want to focus my routine around activities what work the mental and physical muscles that will get me closer to this goal on two fronts: working on my ability to execute the sounds I hear is one piece of the puzzle, but I’m also constantly looking to develop my ear and my mind’s ability to imagine new sounds.  These sounds can be harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, or a some combination of the three.

Here’s one approach I’ve used to structure my practice routine around this goal.


Core, Ear, & Mind

As I delve into any new concept, my abilities will evolve with continued practice.

  • Phase 1Core: At first, I focus on the core concept, honing in on accuracy and fundamentals.
  • Phase 2Ear: Once that foundation has been established, I begin to recognize it more frequently being used by musicians I am playing with and in recordings I’m checking out. I’ll copy those ideas and work them out on my horn.
  • Phase 3Mind: And as the core concept becomes something I can effortlessly hear, it begins to crystalize in my mind. From there, I can work on manipulating the basic concept, with the goal of eventually personalizing it to serve a higher purpose. That can be emotional, contextual, personal, or simply exploratory.

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Taking a strictly rhythmic example, say I’m working on playing in 5. I’ll start with the core, foundational rhythm: playing quarter or eighth note simple lines with metronome clicks with a strong beat every 5:

| 1 strong   (2 weak)  (3 weak)  (4 weak)  (5 weak) | 1 strong  etc…

From there I move to metronome clicks on 1, or maybe only one click every 2 measures, aiming for accuracy and groove. After additional core work, I’ll start seeking out different rhythmic ideas in 5 I hear that I’ll want to copy, new rhythms and syncopations that build on top of my core.

After that, I’ll work on the mind. I’ll develop ideas of my own, thinking through different manipulations and permutations of 5 that I can employ in various contexts. Maybe I’ll play 5-tuplets against 4, work on triplets groupings inside 5, syncopations, different permutations. The goal is to develop my own, personal sound in 5, one that is deeply rooted.


Mixing CoreEarMind with Melody/Harmony/Rhythm

Let’s expand on the above approach. Melody, harmony, and rhythm are necessarily intertwined in most musical contexts. Although I advocate isolating specific “pillars” and working on developing them in a vacuum as a first step, the most interesting, innovative, and advanced revelations will be developed by mixing melody, harmony, and rhythm. Generally speaking, you will want to establish your core in isolation, then as you begin the process of manipulation, expansion, and, eventually, personalization, you will begin to naturally blur the lines between melody, harmony, and rhythm.

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Let’s expand our above example of working on 5. Say I’ve already become fairly accurate at feeling and executing rhythmic ideas in 5. Now let’s start playing with one of the other pillars. What happens if you move the harmony twice in a single measure (2 changes per measure, say 3 + 2)?

From there, we can move into ideas that involve all 3 pillars simultaneously. For example, group your melody as sets of 4 while playing 5-tuplets over a tune in 4, making the changes fit as you move along:

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You’ll also find that this process is cyclical. Once you discover a new idea in the final “mind” phase, you need to go back to the “core” pillar to ingrain the idea into your skull. Then you’ll work on your ear for it. Finally, you have a new building block from which you can construct even more complex combinations of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Once you start experimenting with combinations of melody, harmony, and rhythm, the possibilities are endless. To me, that’s part of what makes music so infinitely fascinating.

By Mike Lebrun

Mike is a jazz saxophonist & composer committed to a brighter future for music. ...Full Bio