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Harmonic improvisation

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New Member
Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 2
Topic starter  

Hi guys, been lurking on the list for a while now, picking people's brains.

I hope some you music theoreticians out there can help with this. What is the difference between melodic improvisation and harmonic improvisation?

I've always had a liking for Bebop, particularly Thelonius Monk. While browsing in a book shop this afternoon, I came across a book about jazz in which it said that Bebop is characterised by harmonic improvisation rather than melodic improv. At £42 there's no way I was going to buy the book, so I throw myself on your superior knowledge.

Simple explanations please, people. I'm a blues player and know just about enough music theory to work out a few chord shapes in different tunings and that's about it.

Many thanks

Illustrious Member
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 4921

Well, the term is pretty fuzzy. And it doesn't really describe bebop very well...

In my view melodic improvisation is spontaneously composing a melody over a fixed chord progression; harmonic improvisation is creating a new harmony to support a fixed melody (ala Joe Pass et al).

Bebop is based on a fixed chord structure - so it's melodic improvisation. The structures are usually complex, which can make it seem like the soloists are re-harmonizing as they go (some may actually do that; I can't, because the tempos are too darn quick - you're sometimes changing chords a couple times a second, and I don't think fast enough to reharmonize at that speed!).

There's another style - free jazz - that really uses both; Ornette Coleman called it "harmolodics". But no individual creates the improvised harmony... that comes from the group collectively. Each member is creating an improvised melody at the same time, and these melodies intereact to suggest chords. At times in a free jazz performance you can actually pick out a harmonic progression. Since it's not by design, it's improvised.

I think Joe Zawinul (from Weather Report) once described this as "everybody solos, so nobody solos".

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New Member
Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 2
Topic starter  

"the term is pretty fuzzy"

Hmmm, this sounds more like sloppy journalism rather than music theory. I've just noticed that Wikipedia puts it as: "Bebop or bop is a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos and improvisation based on harmonic structure rather than melody." Which sounds very similar to what was said before. I would have thought that harmonic improvisation would have to involve both the backing and the melody. Bebop, as you say, has a very strict chordal structure which holds the music together and allows, what is often in its basic form, a quite pedestrian melody to soar (depending on the soloist).

I'm beginning to wish I hadn't started to explore this. I'm getting confused. I think it's best to just sit back and enjoy the music.

Many thanks for your reply NoteBoat, let's not go down the road of Free Jazz, totally defeats me that stuff. :? :? :?