What are the best notes for improvising?

I am often asked, “How do you know what notes to play when improvising?”  Given the many possibilities, it’s tempting to get lost in detailed concepts such as modes, jazz scales, blue notes, chord tones etc. However relevant these may be, "dumping" too much information early in the game tends to sap the confidence of inexperienced improvisers. Fortunately, there’s a simpler, more practical answer: The best notes for improvising on any given tune are the notes in the melody.  All the improviser has to do is mix them up and it’s easier than you may think. 

1. Know the tune

To personalize a tune with embellishments, variations, or a jazz solo, you have to really “own” it by internalizing its sound and structure. Learn the tune from sheet music or play it by ear; but also listen to recordings of it, sing the melody in the shower, dream about it, and memorize it. Yes, memorize it! 

Memorization Tip: Practice the tune with your eyes closed only peeking at the notation when you're stuck. 

Watch a related video archive from a livestream on this topic.


2. Identify melody notes

What notes are in the melody? Take stock of the notes in “chunks” of about two measures.  For example the unique notes (not including repeated notes) in the first two measures of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star are C, G and A.  Similarly, F, E, D, and C are the unique notes in measures 3 and 4.


3. Mix up the melody

Once the melody notes are ingrained, reorder them. Whether by personal preference or random choices, these are the notes that  will sound “right.”  For example, if you toss the note chunks above in an imaginary can, shake them around, and then pour them out, you might come up with something like this:

Tip: If a note doesn’t sound quite 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 note. 


4. Shake up the rhythm

Next, vary the rhythms to make it more interesting. Here is one possibility. Of course, yours will sound different.

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

The best notes for improvising on any given tune are the notes in the melody.
— Bradley Sowash

 That's Jazz Book 1 has more details on mixing up melodies.

To review:

  1. Learn the tune well.

  2. Identify unique melody notes.

  3. Mix up these notes.

  4. Play with rhythms.

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.

Until next time, enjoy your creative musical journey.