Five Levels: Variations on a Simple Melody As an Intro to Improvisation for Folk Musicians

Learning to improvise on a melody is the core message of this lesson. Many methods teach improvisation on the chords or underlying harmony of a tune, and that is certainly an important approach. But central to any kind of folk or country improvisation is the ability to identify the essential elements in a melody and improvise on them.

  Matt Glaser is the artistic director of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee. This lesson is an edited excerpt from his book Bluegrass Fiddle and Beyond: Etudes and Ideas for the Modern Fiddler, published by Berklee Press.
  Musical Examples
  1. Connecting with Quarter Notes
  2. Constantly Moving Eighth Notes
  3. Rhythmic Variations
  4. Counterpoint
  5. Abstraction


For many years, I have been teaching a system that I call "The Five Levels of Improvisation." My method was originally inspired by the great alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who teaches a gradual development of a melody that he calls "The Ten Levels of Improvisation." I have modified, developed, and organized this approach in an effort to make it valuable to folks playing music other than jazz.

Before you do anything else, try to identify the song's skeletal melody. As our musical example, we'll start with the familiar children's tune "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (don't laugh). If you don't think highly of this melody, you'd be wrong! Tunes like this have gotten rid of every extraneous element. The melody is nicely boiled down to a very simple but valuable progression of pitches. (See example 1.) Even so, your first step in improvising on this simple melody is to boil it down even further by looking at the skeleton of the melody. The skeletal tones fall on beats one and three of each bar.

Level 1: Connecting with Quarter Notes

Level 1 of our five levels of improvisation involves connecting these skeletal tones with constantly moving quarter notes.

Igor Stravinsky is quoted in Poetics of Music saying: "My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit."

In the case of this skeletal melody concept, restricting and limiting the field of action paradoxically gives us the freedom to make one small creative gesture.

Try playing constantly moving quarter notes on the skeletal melody, but only in steps; that is, restrict the way you connect the pitches to stepwise motion - no leaps. That will be level 1A. For level 1B, connect the skeletal melody in constantly moving quarter notes in leaps - no steps. Finally, level 1C involves connecting the skeletal melody in constantly moving quarter notes with some chromaticism added. Note that in 1C, the skeletal melody is treated more freely with less regard for rules. As you become familiar with this approach to improviation, let the spirit of the lines you are creating lead you.

Level 2: Constantly Moving Eighth Notes

Keeping the same skeletal melody, now apply constantly moving eighth notes. Levels A, B, and C are as above. In each case, connect the skeletal melody with constantly moving eighth notes (a) in steps, (b) in leaps, and (c) with chromaticism.

Level 3: Rhythmic Variations

In level 3, Shift your focus slightly and make up rhythmic variations on the skeletal melody. In the first two levels, you were restricted rhythmically to playing constant quarters or eighths. Here you're free to play any rhythms you want as long as you play the skeletal melody.

Level 4: Counterpoint

Level 4 involves playing counterpoint to a melody. This is an extremely important but rarely discussed approach employed by great improvisers in any idiom. The best way to begin thinking about this level is to imagine a singer working with an instrumentalist who is playing tasty backup while the singer sings. That tasty backup is essentially a counterpoint to a melody. Your counterpoint should be relatively still while the melody is moving, and relatively active while the melody is still. You should get to the point where you can keep a melody going in your head while playing counterpoint on your instrument. This bifurcated hearing exists in nearly all styles of music. To practice this, I recommend that you record yourself playing a melody and then play the recording back at a medium volume while improvising a counterpoint. Over time you should gradually turn the volume down on your recording until you can keep it going entirely in your head without reference to an external source.

A lot of great bebop melodies are constructed using this principle. For instance, the Charlie Parker line "Ornithology" is written on the chord changes of the song "How High the Moon." We call this kind of line a contrafact. If you were to play "Ornithology" against the melody of "How High the Moon," you'd see that they fit together like lock and key. One is active, where the other is still, and vice versa. The point is to keep a melody going in your head while playing a counterpoint on your instrument.

Level 5: Abstraction

Level 5 involves making a conceptual leap and imagining the eight bars of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" as a frame in which you improvise. I often ask my students to make an abstract drawing and then try to play that visual abstraction in the frame of the eight bars of this tune.

These five principles of melodic improvisation are applicable to any style of music. All you need to do is find the skeletal melody of whatever you're improvising on, and then follow these simple rules. I have worked with people using these ideas on fiddle tunes like "Arkansas Traveler," on jazz standards like "All the Things You Are," and even on movements from the Bach unaccompanied violin sonatas.