An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

March 5, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 6 Comments

Learning to improvise - motifs



A cohesive solo flows together and has a sense of logic to it. Each part builds upon the last, whether rhythmically or melodically, as it guides you to the end of the solo. The sense of cohesion makes you feel like the solo is a deliberate and well-constructed piece of music.

The opposite of a cohesive solo is one that meanders without any sense of direction or purpose. When listening to such a solo you'll probably wonder if the player is lost (i.e. doesn't know where they are in the song form), or maybe you'll keep wondering when they're going to stop playing. By the way, there is a syndrome amongst beginners (which I've been guilty of) that typically occurs when playing a meandering solo. You're unhappy with your ideas, but you keep playing chorus after chorus with the thought that maybe the next chorus will be "the one". If you've ever done this, or if you've listened to others doing it, you know how things typically turn out...

NOTE: When I described a meandering solo in the previous paragraph, I wasn't talking about free or avant-garde jazz. I realize some people have a hard time making sense of that genre and might think of it as aimless meandering, but when examined closely you will likely discover that even the most bizarre-sounding solos have elements of cohesion.


There are several ways to build a cohesive solo, but I think the easiest method is through the use of motif development. A motif is a musical phrase that is repeated through the course of a solo. To avoid sounding like we're just playing the same phrase over and over again, we gradually alter that phrase rhythmically and/or melodically. This gradual development creates a cohesive solo because each phrase logically moves to the next; creating a sense that everything is connected.

You can use motif development in a variety of ways when creating a solo. For instance, you could use one motif that you develop over the duration of your solo, or you could develop one motif for a while and then start another, or you can start with a motif and then play some random ideas, then come back to your motif. The possibilities are endless, and are ultimately determined by your own style and musical tastes.

Motifs are also a great way to start a solo. I don't know about you, but I don't always know what I want to play when I put the horn to my mouth and start my solo (my best ideas come to me while I'm soloing). When this happens, I find it's best to just play a simple 3-5-note motif and develop that for a while. If I have a better idea during the development of the motif, then I (try to) smoothly transition to the new idea and go with it. If I don't come up with anything better, then I just stick to the motif.


In the clip below, I start out with a 5-note motif that contains the notes of the blues scale in descending order. Initially, I vary the motif's melody by starting on different notes. In the last four bars, I also vary the motif's rhythm by playing a 4-note pattern.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Simple solo with a single motif. Melody and rhythms are varied.


Create a relatively short motif with 3-5 notes from the blues scale. Play a few choruses, modifying only the melody (the pitches). Experiment with various melodies, while keeping the rhythm the same throughout the solo.


Follow the steps in Exercise 1, but this time change just the rhythm, while keeping the melody the same.


You guessed it, practice changing the rhythm and the melody for a single motif (similar to my example).


Once you've gotten good at the exercises above, try a solo with more than one motif. In the clip below, you'll notice that I develop one motif in the first chorus of my solo and then work on a new motif in the second chorus.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Simple solo with two motifs. Melody and rhythms are varied.


Play a motif based on the tune you're playing. For instance, if you're soloing on "Footprints" your motif might consist of a phrase that mimics the first 5-notes of the tune. Listen to the following clip for an example:

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Tune-based motif on Footprints


Now that you've learned how to play and develop motifs in your solos, try to identify motifs in the solos of great players. Listening to, and identifying elements in great solos is the best way to learn how to create your own great solos.


The spontaneous nature of a jazz solo doesn't give us a lot of time to really think about what we're trying to do. On the other hand, written composition allows us to play as we go, refining our ideas in a more relaxed setting. The lessons learned from the act of composition (how to connect phrases, how to create excitement, how to develop a simple idea into a tune, etc.) can then be applied to improvised solos. So, give it a try. Use a simple motif as the basis for a 12-bar composition.


Each exercise above use the Bb concert blues track from Volume 1 - "How To Play Jazz & Improvise" of Jamey Aebersold's play-a-long series. I highly recommend this play-a-long, not only for it's audio tracks, but also for the accompanying book. The book has a lot of useful information on a variety of topics. It's also a good resource for learning jazz theory.

If you don't have the Aebersold play-a-long, you might try one of the tracks at jazzpracticeloops.com.

This is fantastic stuff. Every beginning improvisor should read this one.

The great thing -- the ideas that you played were simple but they sounded really mature. Like you mentioned in your post -- it seemed like the solos were going somewhere. Great job. I will mention and point to this post in my next journal entry.

Comment by lionel roman

my name is lionel roman im a trumpet player for a salsa band called conjunto clasico and all the information you given is very very useful i thank you very much,,,and your solo's are great!,,,,,,thank you lionel roman

Comment by Rick

Hi Lionel,

I'm glad you're enjoying the site and thank you for the compliments on my playing. It's always nice to hear some words of encouragement!

Are you a member of the same Conjunto Classico group featured here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t06AQe2HBJw

If so, you guys are fantastic! I just watched a few clips on YouTube and really enjoyed all of it.


Comment by Will

Great lesson! Been listening to Stan Getz lately and love his melodic phrasing. I get a little caught up in the bebop solos so I appreciate this lesson.

Comment by Guenther Frank, Europe, Austria

Sir, thank you so much for transmitting of your knowledge!

Clear, transparent and comprehensible!

Never heard these most important suggestions,

- especially not in this way!

Like Eric M. Brewington: Every beginning improvisor should read this one.

All the best from Europe, Guenther!

Comment by Zachary Robinson

Amazing stuff! This article was short, concise, and very helpful. Can't wait to practice these out.

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