Using Permutation to Create Unlimited Musical Ideas…and Killer Technique

Time and again, we’ve stressed on this site that scales are not the secret to jazz improvisation. However, scales can be beneficial if you practice and apply them in the right way. Once you aurally understand and ingrain the vital aspects of the jazz language (i.e. phrasing, melodic construction, expression, harmonic application, time, articulation, etc.) the scales and theory that you study in the practice room can substantially improve your technique.

Not only that, scales coupled with a deep harmonic knowledge can infinitely expand your options for musical expression.

Whoa, wait a second! So scales are horrible and to be avoided at all costs, but they’re also invaluable for musical expression? I know it’s sounds contradictory, but consider how music is presented in most educational settings. The crux of this matter lies in the way that the majority of musicians view scales.

Most beginning players, amateur improvisers, and even some accomplished musicians see scales as 8 notes that either ascend and descend. That’s it. Not related to musicality or harmonic application, just another exercise to be practiced in all 12 keys because someone told them to. What’s worse, many frustrated improvisers use this limited view of scales as the basis for creating solos over chord progressions.

One of the major problems that people have in learning to improvise is that they turn of their ears and only think of scales in order to come up with a solo. This simply doesn’t work. Scales are for the practice room and should be used to ingrain technique and an elementary understanding of harmony.

Language, ears, and musical creativity on the other hand, are what you need for performance and improvisation. Think of scales not as those 8 ascending and descending notes, but rather, as a practice resource from which you can create endless possibilities for melodic material.

“All you can do is play a melody. No matter how complicated it gets, it’s still a melody.”~Stan Getz

Anything that you improvise is a melody whether it’s a scale fragment, an interval, or simply a sustained note. Some melodies are inspired and creative while others are thrown together and poorly executed. Our goal as improvisers is to be creative in constructing our melodies and to continuously strive to make them better. Ultimately, we must make them more true to what we’re hearing and feeling inside ourselves at any moment in time.

Imagine any melodic or scale fragment as a Rubik’s Cube. Twist it one way and you’ve changed the harmonic color of the line. Twist it another and you’ve altered the melodic shape of the line. Pretty soon, after a few small adjustments, you have a completely new line – all without changing the building blocks of the original melody.

By using this concept of exploring the permutation of a simple idea, you can create infinite possibilities with very limited resources.

How to turn 4 notes into a well of musical ideas

Think of an F minor pentatonic scale. In your mind, you probably see it on a music staff going up and down from the first space F to the F on the top line. Because you’ve defined this scale in your mind in this fashion, when you go to improvise you’ll be pulling notes from a static mental image. This is not ideal, but ironically, it’s the way that many people think as they go to improvise.

What we need to do as improvisers is to get away from this limited mental view of scales and chords. When we hear a sound or think of a scale, we want to have unlimited possibilities for creative expression, not just the mental picture of 8 notes on a staff. The good news is that it’s easy to change this frustrating mindset.

A simple and highly effective way to create limitless variations and improve your technique at the same time is to create small cells or groupings of a scale or pattern. Then explore every permutation of these cells and you’ll quickly find yourself with more melodic material then you know what to do with.

Let’s go back to that F minor pentatonic scale again, but this time we’ll just use the first four notes. It may be hard to believe, but with this small scale fragment, you can actually create unlimited musical ideas.

In a step by step process below, I’ll show you some simple techniques to turn these four notes into infinite sources for melodic development in your solos. Stop thinking of scales or patterns in a limited and one dimensional way. With a slight adjustment in your practice routine, you can completely transform your approach to improvisation.

5 Note Cells

What’s a cell? A quick look on Wikipedia will tell you that it’s a “small rhythmic and melodic design that can be isolated.” This cell “can be developed, independent of its context, as a melodic fragment” and “it can be used as a developmental motif.”

This is essentially what we are going to do with that F minor pentatonic scale in order to create unlimited melodic material. We’re taking a small rhythmic and melodic piece of the scale, taking it out of its original scalar context, and developing that fragment into new musical ideas through the use of permutation.

It’s really not as complex as it seems and you can use this process with any scale. Below, I’ve constructed four 5 note cells using the material of that pentatonic scale. I simply took the the original 4 notes and added the first note on to the end of the line to create a 5 note cell. Take a look:

Cell #1: Start on the 1st note and follow the sequence until the first note is repeated.

Cell #2: Start on the 2nd note and follow the sequence until you reach the 2nd note again.

Cell #3: Start on the 3rd note and follow the sequence until you reach the 3rd note again.

Cell #4: Start on the 4th note and follow the sequence until you reach the 4th note again.

Play each of these cells with a metronome and slowly increase the speed. Repeat each one until you can play it comfortably at a double time speed (or faster). Concentrate on your finger technique and sound, aiming for 100% accuracy all the way through.

When you have each 5 note cell up to speed, play them in succession:

Again, gradually work up the tempo of this four bar phase until you can play it very quickly. When you’ve practiced all of these 5 note cells, you have the basic permutations of that original ascending 4 note pentatonic fragment covered.

7 Note Cells

When you’re comfortable with the 5 note cells, it’s time to augment each one to create a 7 note cell.

The idea of constructing 7 note cells is exactly the same as the process for 5 note cells. Start with the first note and continue through the pattern until you end up with 7 notes. Then for the next cell, simply start on the next consecutive note of the pattern:

Depending on the length of the original melodic or scale fragment, you can create cells of different lengths. Just make sure that you are getting variation between each consecutive cell. For a 4 note scale fragment, as we used above, try creating permutations with 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9 note cells.

3 Methods for creating variation with these cells

Exploring and mastering the permutations of each cell is only the beginning. There still remain numerous options for variation and the way we’ll achieve this is by incorporating some key elements of musicality; namely rhythm, time, melody, and articulation.

I) Rhythmic and metric variation

Once you’re comfortable with the basic cells and their permutations, try altering the metric or rhythmic content of the original melodic fragment to create more variation. Let’s use the 5 note cells from above as an example:

Take the quarter rests out and you’ll create a feeling of 3/4 over the 4/4 time signature. This is a great device to use when you want to carry phrases over the bar line and create tension by offsetting the time:

Another easy way to create new material with those same four notes, is to alter the rhythmic content of each cell. The possibilities are endless here.

Also try grouping the five notes of the cell into different rhythmic pairings to accent different notes. This particular rhythm emphasizes the 4th note of each cell:

And the rhythm below emphasizes the 2nd note of each 5 note cell:

As you can see, these rhythmic variations can completely change the character of the original line. These examples are just a few quick ideas, see what you can come up with on your own in the practice room.

II) Melodic variation

With all of the above examples, we were using the ascending first four notes of the F minor pentatonic scale. However, you can change the direction or shape of the original line to create even more variety. For example, try a descending version of that original pentatonic fragment:

Now take this through every permutation of a 5 note cell:

You can also change the shape and intervallic content of the initial cell to produce even more melodic possibilities:

This is just one example, challenge yourself to find even more by altering the intervallic content of those four notes.

III) Variations in articulation

The third way to create variation in these cells is to alter the articulation. Tonguing or slurring every note of an eighth note line can be very boring to listen to. Articulation adds interest, expression, and accents different notes in the line. As a start, try using “jazz articulation” and accenting the upbeats of the line:

Then, explore the different combinations of staccato, legato, and slurring to create new variations on that original cell:

Creating harmonic tension

So far we’ve only worked on variation in one key, F minor. Eventually you will want to work out these cells and melodic devices in all 12 keys. Once you have these various cells together in all 12 keys, you can combine one cell with a cell in a different key to create harmonic interest and tension.

For example take the 7 note cell we were working on above and transpose it to the key of F# minor:

Now experiment with inserting pieces of these F# cells into the original F minor cells. At first try alternating measures between the keys and then see if you can alternate by half steps every few notes. Below is a very basic example of this technique:

The more control that you have over each cell and the subtlety with which you can apply them in various related and unrelated harmonic situations will greatly add to the harmonic interest of your solos. Take this concept into the practice room and create your own patterns to apply to your solos.

Before permutation…and after

Take a second and think back to the way that you were visualizing that F minor pentatonic scale at the beginning of this article. It probably looked something like this in your mind:

Every melodic idea based on this scale would come from this one mental image. When you are soloing in the heat of the moment, this limited vision is not going to get you very far. However, after practicing the ideas of permutation and variation described above, creating a line like this can become well within your reach:

By simply changing your mindset about scales and the way that you practice them, you’ll be able to imagine and execute lines that you never thought possible in your improvisation.

Apply this concept to every type of scale or pattern that you like: major and minor scales, altered scales, chromatic lines, pentatonic fragments, whole tone melodies, etc. By creating cells and exploring their permutations you’ll discover unlimited melodic ideas and begin to develop an entirely new level of technique.

I once heard a tape of Woody Shaw giving a lesson to a lucky student in a hotel room. On the recording, you can hear Shaw demonstrating the key exercises he practiced everyday to create his signature style of improvisation. A repeated four note intervallic line, a nine note chromatic pattern, a group of repeated large intervals –cells, permutation, variation.

If you’re serious about transforming your improvisation and taking your technique to the next level, don’t underestimate the power of these concepts, a quick listen to Woody Shaw is all the proof you need: