Subscribe now for free! JAZZed. CLICK HERE to signup now!

The Shape of Melody

Jazzed Magazine • Basic TrainingMarch 2021 • March 18, 2021

Share This:

Improvising is an autodidactic (self-taught) skill. The most viable way to teach oneself to improvise is to visualize melodic shapes through the understanding of music theory. You must be able to hear the sound of these shapes and execute them on whatever instrument you play. Then, through trial and error, a person can teach oneself the art of improvising.

Now, there are some supremely talented people who learn to improvise without this ability and, if you are one of them, this article is not for you. Musicians learn to improvise by imitating the masters of improvisation and then developing their own style through practice and invention. To learn to improvise at a high level, wait to improvise until you understand some of the tools that are employed by those masters of improvisation. I have invented a graph to help achieve this skill. In a master class at an Aebersold clinic, Chris Potter said that when he comes up with a complicated musical line he will write it out in one key and then use his mind to play it all of the keys.

Usually when a student tries to play something in different keys and makes mistakes, they correct it using only their ears – they know what sounds correct, but they don’t know why. The way my graph works is first you will play along with the 12 bar transcribed solo by a master musician. When you can sing it and play it perfectly you go to the graph. The graph shows the shape of the improvised solo, using numbers that relate to each chord. Next, you fill in the boxes with the correct notes in a different key. Now when you play the solo, if there is a mistake you can correct it and understand why the note selected was wrong. Because you know the sound of the solo, by using the graph, you can visualize and hear the transcription as it unfolds in all the keys.

After doing a few of these 12-bar blues solos in every key, there will be no need to write them out since you will have learned to visualize by thinking of the chords and the improvised melody that implies them. By singing the solo, you are doing ear training and you will develop perfect relative pitch.

The transcribed solo that follows is a section of Charlie Parker’s 1951 recording of “Au Privave.”

Click here to download a pdf of this transcription.

In a career spanning over 50 years, New England-based bandleader, sax player, and jazz educator Miles Donahue has performed on and recorded 14 albums. His third album with Mike Stern is coming out in 2020 on Whaling City Sound. Donahue is currently a visiting professor at Middlebury College, teaching a class on the music of Motown and popular piano styles. His site,, offers an effective course for new players to learn jazz improvisation and for seasoned players to learn fresh approaches to soloing.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!