Random Thoughts on Improvisation- Sequential verses Diatonic


“the art or act of improvising, or of composing, uttering, executing, or arranging anything without previous preparation:
Musical improvisation involves imagination and creativity”.

“Now there is an Oxymoron”

“a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness” or “to make haste slowly.”

One of my most respected friends from my early days at UNI was Dr. Dave Kennedy. To most who knew him, Dave was the epitome of an aging professor with one exception. He had a brilliant mind and an equally elevated sense of humor. When I mentioned to him one day that I needed to practice my improvisation he pointed out the fact that practicing improvisation was a contradiction of terms, and he was again correct. How can one practice something which is supposed to be spontaneous? I loved that old guy!

Now back to the topic.


“characterized by regular sequence of parts”.


Adjective- “scales that contain five whole tones and two semitones, as the major, minor, and certain modal scales.

We may now begin with our discussion of Improvisation- “Sequential verses Diatonic”.

Due to the fact that I am now improvising substantially more these days because of the success of our newly formed Dixieland band (the Dixie Kings), I have an ample amount of time to ponder the technical side of the art form called improvisation. Every Friday and Saturday evening I am faced with the challenge to improve my jazz chops lest my spontaneous creativity become stale and repetitive. From this dilemma and the fact that it is 6:00am and I have a splitting headache, I decided to address every improvisational question every voiced. With the limited space available on this modest Blog, I w\have decided to departmentalize just a few of the elements dealing with creative improvisation and to begin, let’s talk about the differences between “sequential and diatonic” improvisation.

One of the greatest improvisers was Ludwig Von Beethoven.

This well-known composer was most remembered for three elements in his compositions;

1. Motivic consistency
2. Rhythmic drive
3. I forgot the third

Motivic consistency

Motivic consistency is one means of achieving unity among movements, as it is between sections of a single movement. (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is a prime example.)

Most followers of music can recognize his signature motive of three repeated short notes followed by a lower long note which is a prime example of his greatness. Some may question if a composer is actually improvising while composing major works and to that I say…….yes!

Now, how can an improviser utilize recognizable motivic material in a sequence?

To better illustrate my thoughts on this subject I will use the old tune, “Bye, Bye Blues” as an example.

The opening measure in Bye, Bye Blues” contains a perfect example of a recognizable motive- E (whole note), G (whole note), Ab (double whole note). This three note motive or motif works very well for an example.


Noun- “a short succession of notes producing a single impression; a brief melodic or rhythmic formula out of which longer passages are developed”.
synonyms: theme, idea, concept, subject, topic, leitmotif, element; through line “a recurring motif in her work”

I had to add this for all my musicologists’ friends. Now there is another example of an oxymoron. They would love to point out the fact that I have been using the two terms (Motif and Motive) interchangeably. To which I say, “Live with it”.

Our example, in addition to having contrasting rhythms, i.e. short, short, long; also includes contrary motion, i.e. down, down, up.

Isn’t this fun?

Now that we have selected a perfect example of a motif/motive, we now can inject this example into an improvisational setting.

Our written and recorded examples will follow the original chord progressions and this chord progression sounds and looks like this-


Sequence- 1 Diatonic Chords

After listening to the chord progression, you should be able to recognize the motivic example as it is now played along with the chord progression.


Sequence- 2 Diatonic Chords with melody

The chord progression is predictable as is the melodic line so the challenge now is to fabricate an improvised line which will sound impressive.

Here I show an example to illustrate the use of the motive and its repetition.


Sequence- 3 Sequence Improvisation

Obviously this is a very rudimentary example but it does show how a repeated motive can give your improvised solo some unity just as Beethoven used his three short notes and one long note to give continuity to each of his movements in his 5th Symphony.

Now we move on to the use of diatonic motion.

Diatonic Motion

“Diatonic refers to musical elements derived from the modes and transpositions of the “white note scale” C–D–E–F–G–A–B”.

Diatonic or scale wise motion is a more basic form of improvising and is the basses of most classes dealing with jazz improvisation. Many times students are instructed to “learn your scales” in order to improvise. Unfortunately many of these same students sound as if they are still practicing their scale when they are improvising. I feel that too much time and effort are allotted to running scales and too little time is spent on listening to great jazz artists.

Here is an example of an improvised solo done in a diatonic fashion using the same song.


Sequence- Scale Improvised

Both the Motivic sequence and the diatonic forms of improvisation given here are very academic sounding but unfortunately many less gifted practitioners of this art form do sound like mathematicians endeavoring to play jazz.

Now that we have identified and illustrated the style difference between motivic sequencing and diatonic improvisation it is time to list a couple advantages and disadvantages of each style.

Advantages of intervallic, motivic sequencing

1. Easily recognized
2. More interesting than diatonic improvisation
3. Adds more continuity to solo

Advantages of diatonic improvisation

1. Much easier to perform
2. Sounds more virtuosic than intervallic, motivic sequencing

Disadvantages of intervallic, motivic sequencing

1. Much more difficult to pull off
2. Requires a more highly developed recognition of the chordal structure

Disadvantages of diatonic improvisation

1. Gets monotonous
2. Requires much more technical ability

Now that we have dissected the pros and cons of these contrasting improvisational techniques, the question of “which is best” may be asked. The answer to that question would be “both are best”. Each gives contrast and consequently interest to a solo. The problem arises as to when and where do you use each and that is ultimate difference between a jazzer and a “JAZZER”.

We have produced in education an overabundance of diatonic scale technicians and few proponents of intervallic, motivic sequencing. Listen to some of the great jazz musicians (with the exception of many of the Beboppers who reveled in their number of notes and failed at producing anything more than a shower of spit) such Pops (Louis Armstrong), Miles (Miles Davis), Clifford Brown and John Coltrane.

“Help level the playing field for today the scale is tipped 80% towards the side of diatonic scale improvisation and only 20% towards the side of intervallic, motivic sequencing”.

What a great bumper sticker that would be!

Highly recommended study material- Patterns in Jazz by Jerry Coker

Now that we have started to open the discussion of good improvisation, our next post will address “the importance of playing the rests”.

Additional post on the subject of Improvisation

Learning to Improvise From A Book

Learning to Improvise Jazz Using The Creative Side Of Your Brain

How Can I Learn To Play Jazz?

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.