When I’m learning a new song, one of the most important things I do is repeatedly play through the harmony of a tune. Repetition is a key component for committing new tunes to long-term memory.
I’m primarily a saxophonist, and I don’t always have access to a piano. So for those of you in a similar situation, how can we practice the harmony of a tune?
One solution is to work with chord arpeggios.
By arpeggiating the chords of a tune many times, we can simultaneously build a strong connection between 1) theory/thinking/brain memory of the chords, 2) physical memory (muscle memory), and 3) ear memory (through repetition we learn to memorize what the chords for a tune sound like as well).
In addition to giving you something to practice to help strengthen your memory of a tune, arpeggios are also useful as blueprints for building jazz lines.
We’re always trying to find ways to hear and come up with different types of melodic lines while improvising. One strategy that can help break up a hyper scale-focused approach to building lines involves thinking about and trying to hear melodies built around chord arpeggios.
So to help you get started practicing with arpeggios, here are my two approaches:
Practice arpeggiating all the chords strictly in root position (i.e., 1-3-5-7).
Here’s an example of what I mean over a Bb blues (notice how it switches to 8th notes to accommodate 1-bar II-V’s where each chord only lasts 2 beats):
Practice arpeggiating all the chords in various inversions.
The goal is to try to be unpredictable and to create smooth voice leading between chords (i.e., avoid big melodic jumps between chords if and whenever possible).
Here’s an example again over a Bb blues (notice the attempt to voice lead a 7th of one chord on beat 4 to a 3rd of the next chord on beat 1 on many occasions to enable smooth transitions between chords):
It’s a small step from the example above to improvising full-blown lines.
Simply add varied rhythms, rests, repeated notes, and/or surrounding tones to the examples above and then you’re improvising in a way that clearly outlines the harmony of the tune!
In example #2, the lines over the 1-bar II-V’s are already usable as 8th note lines in full-blown improvisational context.
If you find exercises like this helpful, I would highly recommend checking out the eBook Zero to Improv, which covers these concepts and much more.