Lesson: Improv Part One


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05-11-2007, 04:58 PM
Improvising Part One: Understanding Keys, Scales and Chords


People often get in a muddle about keys, especially those that do not read sheet music. It would be silly to dwell on them in a series focusing on improvisation, but given that they are, essentially, the grounds upon which any song you are going to improvise over is written, some instruction is probably required.

Okay, a song is essentially a collection of notes. These notes relate to each other to form harmony, which is where the music comes from. A key is, essentially, which notes you use. These are the ones that the melody (be it sung of played) uses and the ones that the chords are made up of.

There are two kinds of key: major and minor. Major ones sound “happy” and minor ones “sad”, although much of the emotion in a piece comes from composition and not choice of key alone. Let us look at a few examples (NB a note with # after it is raised by one. One with b next to it is lowered one semitone. And a semitone is one fret i.e., the first fret on the 6th string is one semitone lower than the second fret on the 6th string)

Let us consider some examples, just so you know what I’m getting at:

C major’s notes are
C, D, E, F, G, A, B

D major’s notes are
D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#

F# minor’s notes are
D, E, F#, G#, A, B, C#

Simple. I could fill an article on how a key is formed but for now it will do to understand their basic function.

Notice, also, how the keys are set out. The note the key is named after, which is called the “root note” or just the “root” comes first. We give each note a number, normally done in roman numerals, so the key note is I (one) and the second note is II (two) and so on. See below

C major’s notes are

1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th

These numbers are also used to talk about the chords, so “chord V in C major” would be G. “Chord III in D major” would be F#.

A Quick Note About Scales

There’s going to be lesson after lesson on scales, but all you need to know now is that If you play a scale, you play the notes of that key in order, most usually ascending then descending.


Chords are a real stickler, but basically govern what you play when improvising and so it’s best to tackle them now. Let’s look at them as simply as possible:
• A chord is a collection of notes, played simultaneously, that normally have some harmony and so sound “nice”.
• They are made of the first, third and fifth notes of their root. That isn’t the root of the key, but the root of the chord, i.e. the note the chord is named after. So C is C-E-G.
• There are tow kinds of chords, major and minor. Which one you use depends on what key you are. This is because, as mentioned before, you have to use the notes of the key when writing the song (well, I say have to... but lets get to that in due course).

So, lets say an A chord is being played in the key of C major. A major’s key has a C# in it, making in A-C#-E. Yet the key of C major has no C# in it. Crisis! Or not, as the case may be. One simply plays an A minor, flattening the third (C# becomes C) to fit the key signature. This new chord is called an A minor.

And why? Well there’s two ways of looking at this. One is simply that, when you flatten the 3rd of and chord, it becomes a minor chord. The other is that, in the key of A minor, chord one (A minor) is A-C-E.

Identifying a key

It helps a lot to know what key you are in. How can you work this out? Here are a number of strategies:
• If all/most of the chord patterns start on a particular chord, then that is a likely candidate for the key.
• If one chord is used a lot, then that is another likely candidate.
• If, on numerous occasions (particularly at the end of a section) the penultimate chord goes to the final one as so: G-C, or E-A, B-G (notice the common difference between them, i.e. there are two notes in-between them) then the final chord (C, A, G) is probably it.

The Hard Way

Write out all the chords that are used in it, ignoring any that are only used very rarely or that appear to be dissonant (that is, they do not fit with the music), including whether they be major or minor. Compare them to this

Chord Number: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Tonality : maj min min maj maj min (“diminished”, but ignore this).

and see what pattern most likely fits this one.


We have

G major, D major, B minor, A major, in a chord progression, These all fit in if we have D as chord one with the chart above, so it is likely in D major.

If, however, a chord progression appears more “minor” in its tonality, it is likely in a minor key. Identify its key as above, but then you will have to find the relative minor. A relative minor is the minor key which shares its notes with a major key, for instance, A minor shares its key with C major; simply lower 3 semitones from the major key to find its relative minor.

Hopefully that has cleared some stuff up for you all. I realise there was zero on improvising in this particular episode, however next time I hope to at least introduce some basic scales and ideas that will, eventually lead towards some simple improvisation exercises.

Okay, so thats part one of my improvisation course. What do people think? Worthy of submission? Also, do you think a bit about constructing scales (ie what sharp/flats to use) would be helpful, or just confuse people.

05-11-2007, 05:18 PM
Looking great so far :cheers:

05-11-2007, 07:05 PM
Very good :)

I think anything you could add would be great. The more you can write the better.

05-11-2007, 11:19 PM
Thanks man... You made me realise that alot of scales are just the major scale, but with sharpened or flattened notes. xD

05-11-2007, 11:29 PM
Definitely submit it. It helped me out so far, so seeing a full article would be great!

05-13-2007, 06:19 PM
Maybe you should just add in the whole "tone, tone, semi-tone, tone, tone, tone, semitone" thing just for refreshers, and well also for beginners.