Melodic Vocabulary

Most players study melodic phrases (or patterns) that have strong harmonic implication. They get these from transcriptions of great players, or other sources. Melodic patterns are important not simply as “licks” to be inserted into right hand improvisation, but as ear training where you teach your imagination to remember how lines make harmonic resolutions. Important: only practice phases that appeal to you, because they are more likely to be absorbed into your imagination.

Below are several handouts with lots of phrases or “patterns” which can be learned in several or all keys. Find one that sounds good to you, work out the fingerings so it becomes easy to execute in a single key, then start to transpose it. Remember, the practice of the phrase in a key is not finished until the time feels really relaxed and precise.

A very common harmonic context for melodic phrases in jazz harmony is II-V-I cadence: a minor seventh chord, resolving up a fourth to a dominant 7, resolving up a fourth to a major chord. A “short” II-V-I is a two-bar cadence where the II and the V split one bar, and the I chord takes up one bar. A “long” II-V-I progression allows the II and the V to each last a bar, while the I chord lasts two bars.

In the key of C, Ii-V-I would be Dmi7-G7-CMa 7. A I-V-I progression can also occur as a cadence in a minor key: Dmi7(b5)-G7(b9)-CMi. These two cadences occur with such frequency in mainstream jazz harmony that it is definitely worth studying how to negotiate them melodically.

Basic Harmonic Outlines (Download PDF)
Here is a great place to start with melodic vocabulary. I borrowed this concept from Bert Ligon, a wonderful teacher and keyboard player. These four simple harmonic “outlines” are adapted to both II-V-I in major and minor tonality, and will train your ears to hear harmonic resolutions. They start from the four different tones of the II chord.

Application of Outlines to a Tune (Download PDF)
After learning them in all keys, you can apply the outlines to a tune, addressing all the harmonies explicitly. Remember, this is just an exercise, not music, but if you play it musically (with phrasing and rhythmic embellishment), your ears will get to know the harmonic territory. This exercise of “plugging in” vocabulary into a tune will help bridge the gap between thinking and hearing. This is a sample application of the basic harmonic outlines to “Summertime.” It is good to do the same thing with whatever melodic phrases you are practicing, and be able to play it in time.

The melodic phases in the pages below feature lots of chromatic leading notes which help the phrase outline harmony clearly.

Short II-V-I Patterns (Download PDF)
These phrases are all pitched in the key of C. They imply a short II-V-I (Dmi7-G7-Cma7), or a phrase can be connected to another one where it leaves off, making a long II-V-I. Practice any of the phrases with any of the rhythmic variations listed at the end of the first page.

Long II-V-I Patterns (Download PDF)
These are in the key of C, featuring a bar of II (Dm7) , a bar of V7 (G7), and
two bars of I (Cma7)

Minor II-V-I Patterns (Download PDF)
The variation of the cadence adjusted to a minor key features a half-diminished chord resolving up a fourth to a dominant 7th with a b9, resolving up a fourth to a minor chord. This cadence occurs in tunes frequently.

Dominant Diminished and Whole Tone Patterns (Download PDF)
These melodic phrases outline two different harmonic contexts: the G7 b9 chord resolving to a C minor using the dominant diminished scale sound; and the G9 #5 chord resolving to a C Major, using the whole tone scale sound.

Turn-around Patterns (Download PDF)
Turn-arounds are melodic phrases which depart from and return to a tonic. Here are some common ones in the key of C

Triad Outlines (Download PDF)
These common and useful patterns embellish the notes of major and minor triads.

Blues Licks in F (Download PDF)
Here are some phases that can be played over any kind of F blues.

Extended II-V Vocabulary (Download PDF)
It is very useful to be able to weave a continuous line over a static II-V sound. This could apply to a modal dorian sound, or a dominant 7 vamp. These phrases use lots of chromatic notes along with simple scale arpeggiations.