Where’s One?

When a novice improviser strays too far from the beat, the band often quips, “Where’s One?”, meaning “Are you lost?”

As improvisers, we seek fresh, innovative approaches which still retain the coherence needed to keep listeners’ interest.   Sonny Rollins famously used “motivic development” to simultaneously add unity and variety to his improvisations.

Here is a melodic phrase which is then repeated verbatim.   What makes the second statement of this phrase sound different from the first?

Notice the “rhythmic offset”:   the initial statement of the theme begins on beat 3 (we’re in 12/8), while  the second statement begins on beat 12.   Jazz players call this “playing on the other side of the beat.”  If your band mates are sufficiently skilled to avoid getting lost, playing on the other side can be used to stunning effect.

Note also that the second statement of our melodic phrase – while melodically identical to the first – is accompanied by chords from a different key.   We might refer to this as a “transposed harmonic setting.”  The new harmonies give the melody a distinctly different sound, as if stage lighting on an actor had been changed from red to blue.

Some other ways you can create “motivic development” include the use of devices such as:

  • augmentation, in which each note lasts twice as long.
  • diminution, in which each note lasts half as long.
  • sequencing, in which the melodic shape is moved higher or lower in pitch.  This can occur tonally, modally, or as a rough approximation of the melodic shape.
  • inversion, in which rising intervals become falling intervals, and falling intervals rise.
  • retrograde, in which the melody is played backwards.
  • fragmentation, in which mere fragments of the motif are used. 

A perfect example of this process is the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Beethoven was a master of motivic development, often relying on the skimpiest of motifs.

If you want to practice this melodic phrase, use the recording and chart below.  Let me know, if you have comments or questions.


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