Melody Mix Up

How to find improvised notes that fit a tune ThatsJazz1

Here is the second in a series of blogs coupled with videos that focus on specific tunes from my That’s Jazz piano method books that we will be playing in the 88 Creative Keys summer camp this summer.

Late Beginner – That’s Jazz Book 1
1. Spare Change
2. Swing Out
3. Burrito Cha Cha

Early Intermediate – That’s Jazz Book 2
4. Flint and Steel
5. Get Up, Get Ready
6. Repeat After Me

Intermediate – That’s Jazz Book 3
7. Fired Up
8. Livin’ the Blues
9. Stepping Stones

Swing Out from That’s Jazz Book 1 is my focus today but the principles discussed here can be applied to most any tune. Please take a look at the video where I demonstrate how to get the most out of this tune.  Pay particular attention around 3:00 where I explain the concept of “melody mixup.”

The first step towards improvising on a tune is to learn the original melody and chords as written.  Then, if you are serious about learning to improvise, memorize it.  Yes, memorize it!  To personalize a tune with embellishments, variations, or improvisation, you have to really “own” it by internalizing is sound and structure. Play with your eyes closed, only peeking at the written music for hints until there is no hesitation about the next chord or note set.

When the tune becomes a familiar friend, it’s time to spin some improvisations in the right hand while maintaining the chords in the left.  The first question that arises at this point is often, “What notes should I play?”  Given the many possibilities, it’s tempting for music educators to suggest overly detailed concepts such as modes, jazz scales, blue notes, chord tones and the like.  However relevant these may be, too much information too early in the game tends to sap the fragile confidence of beginning improvisers.  Fortunately, there’s a simpler, more practical answer:  The notes that will fit an improvisation in a given tune are the same notes that are in the melody.  All the improviser has to do is mix them up!

It’s easier than you may think.  Start by identifying the unique notes in “chunks” of about two measures.  Take for example, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  The unique notes (not including repeated notes) in the first two measures of this tune are C, G and A.  Similarly, F, E, D, and C are the unique notes in measures 3 and 4.


Once the melody note sets are determined, they can be reordered according to personal preference or even random choices that will still sound “right.”  For example, if you toss the note sets above in an imaginary can, shake them around and then pour them out, you could come up with something like this:


Next, vary the rhythms to make it more interesting. Here is one possibility:


Of course, there are many other tips and tricks to be learned along the road to mastering the art of improvisation.  But in the meantime, knowing which notes will at least sound okay is a big, liberating leap forward.

To review, follow these simple steps to spin new melodies out of old using the concept of melody mixup.

  1. Learn the tune well.
  2. Identify unique melody notes in small chunks
  3. Mix up these notes along with new rhythms.

Hint: If a note doesn’t sound right because it clashes with a chord, quickly play the note just above or below it.  You are only ever one note away from a better fit. 

Try this on the remaining measures of Twinkle or other tunes you may know.

Do it often and you be jamming!

Until next time, enjoy your creative musical journey.

To learn more easy-to-play improvisational tips and tricks like this, pick up one or more of my That’s Jazz piano method books, available at many online and regular music stores.  Also, consider becoming a part of music history by attending the first ever 88 Creative Keys summer camp this summer.  We have tracks for students, adult pianists and a teacher training workshop.  If you are interested in expanding your ability to play more creatively “off page,” you won’t want to miss it.



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