— 2019 — Jul 4

Approaches & Enclosures

by Anton Schwartz

When we make music, certain notes we play are more important than others. Just like you wouldn’t say, “I’m going to THE store,” you wouldn’t want to emphasize an unimportant note in a musical passage.

This applies to our process of improvising too. The important notes in a phrase—which we call “target notes” or “landing notes”—carry much of the phrase’s meaning, so they deserve the bulk of our creative energy; once we have a sense of what those key notes will be and where they ought to fall, we’d like our ability to connect them (that is, fill in the remaining notes) to be rather automatic. Like when a basketball player dribbles down the court: they should be thinking about where they’re headed and when they’ll get there—not how to dribble.

Approach Notes

When the notes leading up to a target note are close in pitch to the target, we call them approach notes. Here are a couple of examples. The arrows point from the approach notes to their target notes.

Approach BLOG examples&œœ#œ˙
Approach BLOG examples&œœœb˙


A target note is often preceded by more than one approach note. In some cases, the notes lead chromatically up to the target; in others down to the target. In other cases still, a target is preceded by notes both above and below which “home in on it” from both directions. These are known as enclosures. The last phrase we saw is an example. Here are a couple more:

Approach BLOG examples&œœœbœ#œJœ.

The Big Stall

Approach notes take up time without contributing much substantive to the line that contains them. So who needs them really?!?

Well, for one, they’re an easy way of creating tension and release, which contributes ebb and flow to lines that otherwise might be drab in their uniformity.

For another, it’s important to make sure that the important locations of your line (down beats, peaks of phrases, etc.) are occupied by important notes—namely, chord tones. If a phrase is on course to arrive too early at a chord tone that you’re targeting, it’s important to have tactics to stall. For instance, suppose you’re playing an ascending line and you hit C on beat 1, and your intent is to play a bar of C7 and then resolve to F major. If you follow the C mixolydian scale you’ll land on D, the major sixth of F:


The major sixth is not an ideal landing spot, since it’s not one of the main chord tones. Using the C bebop scale allows you to delay the arrival of the C (the fifth of F), which previously fell on the and-of-four, so it falls on beat one. It achieves this by inserting a B as a chromatic approach:


If you prefer to land on the major third, an enclosure works well:


And if you decide to resolve to F minor, an even longer enclosure provides a nice delay to resolve to the Ab:

Approach BLOG examples&œœœœœœbœœwb

See how in all these cases we’ve added approach notes to “stall” the line, so we can hit a better target note on beat one?

Art or Artifact?

I’ve heard it said that yesterday’s technology becomes tomorrow’s aesthetic. Take, for example, typefaces, where serifs (the flat line at the end of a letter’s stroke) originated in the stone carvings of ancient Rome, a function of the chisels with which they were made… but continue to this day in the serif type used in books and newspapers and the like.

So, too, approaches and enclosures in jazz may have come about as a technical solution to a musical problem—how to get the right notes to land in the right places within eighth note lines—but they have come to be part of the jazz vocabulary in countless situations where they are not necessary for any practical reason. Try to think of a few examples in songs you know.

Diatonic versus Chromatic

Suppose we are playing a G major chord and we want to use a single approach note to lead to a D from below. Do we choose a C or a C#?

Likewise, if we’re approaching from above do we choose an E or an Eb? In other words, do we choose approach notes from the chromatic scale (in which case C# or Eb are the closest notes to D) or from the scale corresponding to our chord—here, it’s the G major scale—in which case C and E are the notes adjacent to D. It turns out that both these techniques are useful. We call them chromatic approaches and diatonic approaches respectively.

Sometimes the chromatic approach and the diatonic approach to a note are the same. For instance, approaching the root of a G major chord from an F# is both chromatic and diatonic. And approaching the third of G major (B) from a C is both chromatic and diatonic.

Jazz and the English Language

Fluent jazz lines have a vernacular, often casual, feel… for which chromatic approaches are well suited. Compare the following examples:

&œœ#œœ#œœœ Chromatic Approaches from Below &œœœœœœœ Diatonic Approaches from Below

The chromatic approaches sound casual and colloquial. By comparison, the diatonic phrase feels stiff and less idiomatic to jazz. All things being equal, chromatic approaches are indeed more useful in jazz for this reason. Jazz, after all, is an American creation, and American English uses the schwa (ə) sound extensively. I think of schwa as a “lazy” sound in that it requires our mouths to go as little out of their way as possible, even though the resulting pronunciation sounds less like the “official” word as a result. (An example: “Go to the Florida capital” is pronounced like “tuh thuh fluh-ruh-duh cap-uh-tuhl” instead of “too thee Floor-i-da cap-it-all”) Similarly, chromatic approaches require going as little out of our way in pitch as possible, en route to the target note. The result is that chromatic approach lines don’t match the official harmony; and yet they sound more natural.

Above & Below

So when should we use a chromatic approach and when a diatonic one? Approaches can come from above or from below, and we might assume that the rules for approaches from above & below would mirror each other. But, in fact, there is an inherent asymmetry that makes them work differently. It stems from the fact that when we listen to a line, we pay particular attention to any note that is higher in pitch than the notes that surround it. They’re more noticeable and their sound lingers in the ear longer than others. A good analogy is when we look at a mountain range: the peaks make more of an impression on us than the rest of the terrain.

As a result, compare these two examples:

&œœœœbœœbœ Chromatic Approaches from Above Approach BLOG examples&œœœœœœœ Diatonic Approaches from Above

This time, the diatonic approaches seem like the more useful ones. It’s not as if the chromatic approaches are terrible; it’s just that they call attention to themselves and the fact that they fall outside the harmony outlined by their target notes (C major) much more than the chromatic approaches from below did. Our ears infer additional harmony on the offbeats for the chromatic approach notes when they are from above (say, a Db7 chord), though they did not for the first example. The F# and D# and B could all be explained easily by a passing Cdim7 chord — a common tone diminished chord that resolves to C. But we do not hear the additional chord. That’s because when the chromatic approaches come from below, they simply “fly under the radar”.

Jazz is a colloquial language, like American English. The #ChromaticApproach flies in the face of "proper" harmony much like English's ubiquitous schwa sound goes against "proper" diction. Each so as to minimize out-of-the-way effort. Click To Tweet

Why Practice Them Specially?

Since sequences of approach notes are so common, it makes sense to single them out for practice. Our motive is twofold. First, there’s cultivating the physical ability: like anything we do a lot, we need approach sequences to be easy for us to execute technically. And there’s a deeper reason too. When we play them, we don’t want to have to think about which approach notes to use. We want to concentrate on the destination note and have whatever approach notes are necessary simply fall into place. Like the basketball player above: she needs not only to have all her dribbling skills down, but but to be able to invoke them so automatically that she can navigate wherever she wants without thinking about it. The right approach note(s) should seem to just appear all by themselves at the right time in our ears and in our fingers.

To that end…

Exercises to Practice

I created a sequence of exercises designed to make approach notes automatic for you, and posted them at RandomRoots.app. They’re meant to be practiced in all keys, and to do that you’ll need use some unpredictable system. (Going through keys chromatically or in the circle of fifths will be too easy to “game” and you won’t get the desired benefit.) The Random Roots app works great for that, or you can use flash cards or this pdf sheet.

Approach Note Exercises

Lessons to Draw from the Exercises

I give a number of hints about how best to practice the exercises in the blog post that accompanies them. Here are some more detailed comments about the exercises in the context of approach notes and enclosures in general.

Where the Target Notes Fall

The harmonically important notes in most jazz lines tend to fall on downbeats (beats 1, 2, 3…) rather than upbeats (the “and” beats in between). So too in these exercises, we see that the target notes mostly fall on downbeats. But there are some exceptions:


Look at exercises D7 and D8. The final note of each exercise is a target note that falls on an upbeat. In cases like this, when the target is the last note of the phrase, it doesn’t matter that it falls on an upbeat. The note is accented and given importance in our ears. We hear it as though it falls an eighth note later, on the subsequent downbeat—only syncopated.

We can create the same effect for many of the other exercises by moving the entire exercise either forward or backward by one eighth note—in fact, it works for all the exercises on the first two pages. Try practicing them this way for variety!

Emphasizing the Approach Note

Sometimes, however, a target note falls unaccented on an upbeat. For instance, look at the second note of exercise D2, or the second note of D9. In these cases the targets aren’t at the end of the phrase… and they’re preceded by approach notes that not only fall on the beat but are heavily accented. Exercise D5 is full of accented approaches and unaccented targets, just like this. It’s counterintuitive to accent the approach notes in this way. For instance, the notes would sound very strange by themselves—say, were they not followed by their target notes. To hear what I mean, play D5 with all those notes, which fall on beats 1 & 3, held for a full quarter note so that they never resolve to a target. Sounds nice, eh? 😜

But when these notes resolve immediately to their targets, they make for a very particular and useful musical effect.

We can alter many of the other exercises to create this effect as well. For instance, take exercises C1C5 or C1011 and shift all the notes forward or backward by one eighth note. The resulting exercises have approach notes emphasized and all their target notes falling off the beat.


We saw above that sometime diatonic and chromatic approaches coincide and sometimes they do not. More generally, given a particular chromatic approach pattern—say, three approach notes… two chromatic notes from one direction followed by one from the other direction—which of those notes are diatonic can depend on the underlying chord, the chord tone represented by the target note, and the direction of approach. As a result, when you apply a pattern of approach notes to an arpeggio, as we’ve done on the third page of exercises, some customization will often be necessary.

For example, look at exercises C7 and C9. They both call for two notes approaching the target chromatically from above and one from below. But in the very first two beats, they encounter a snag: to approach the major third (E) by two chromatic notes from above requires starting on the tritone (F#)… a dissonant note which would call a lot of attention to itself, as it would be at the local peak of the line, surrounded by lower notes. Instead, for this one target note, the major third, we break the rule, supplying just one chromatic note from above (and two from below) so that the fourth (F) is at the line’s peak instead—a much better choice, since it is a tension note that naturally resolves to the desired target, E.

Do I need to think about all this?
Can’t I just practice the exercises?!

If you want, you can just write out the exercises in every key and practice them. They’ll get into your ears and into your fingers, and eventually you’ll be able to put them to their proper use. And if you’re ten years old, your brain is flexible enough that it may generalize all the important rules by itself. But you’ll get a lot more mileage out of the exercises if you memorize the idea behind each one and then execute that idea in every key. To do that you’ll need to understand the ideas in a key-independent way. And if you’re playing more than a couple of exercises the most efficient way to do that is to know something about the common rules they obey.

When it comes to improvising well, the important thing is just to know the rules instinctively with your ears and your fingers—that’s what will let you play great sounding lines. But understanding those rules with your head will help you arrive at that place much sooner.

16 Responses

  1. Brilliantly done in both thought and execution. Thank you.
    I’m 76, can play a little but have only a fair ear. Being able to improvise even a bit is a lifetime dream. May I print your article solely for myself as doing so will make the practicing easier.
    In any case thank you so much .
    Joe Cavano

    • Of course, Joe! Glad you find it helpful.
      best wishes, Anton

  2. Pete David says:

    I’m assuming the instrument of choice here is saxophone but I’m a guitar player, do the same principles apply ?

    • Glad you asked, Pete. It’s meant for all instruments—no preferences there at all.

  3. Jazz marcel says:

    Hi, I found your website and eventually downloaded your ‘random roots’ app and I’m really excited about working with it since I’m sure this will help address the weak part of my playing which is making my improv lines make sense.
    However, I am not exactly sure how to use the app, Is there an YouTube link that can give me a playing example?
    Really impressive website!!

    • Thanks for the interest, Marcel! So far the best resources are non-YouTube. Have you explored the Random Roots websiterandomroots.app web site? I’ll reply to you offline as well.

  4. Joao Paz says:

    I was searching the net for some clarification on this topic. I’m so glad I found your website. This is so well written in both literary and practical terms. This is *useful*. Thank you so much. Another guitar player here but I’ll be visiting your website regularly from now on. Now I’m going to check the app, grab my guitar and put it all to practice. Thanks again!

  5. James frankie says:

    Smart pedagogy. Helpful.

  6. ian vantull says:

    Information does change perception, which in turn changes expression in whatever medium. I appreciate your in-depth knowledge, experience, and explanation of points critical to the understanding and forward leap in the area of enclosures. I am a self-taught jazz guitarist, who actually slowed down and studied music in a wide fashion and still am studying. It’s my passion. You are very advanced and simple in your delivery, though some might still miss some things, depending on where they’re at musically. Really, I have leapt considerably from your presentation. Though I am an advanced player, I am now crafting lines of a higher and more progressively advanced kind. Understanding does make a difference. Thank you brother Anton. You are a master.

    • ian says:

      Thank you again sir. I left a comment about a year ago. I am a self thought guitarist constantly breaking barriers by studying music, analyzing, and experimenting. I am 69 years old now and have been playing since I was 16. Revisiting your site, I am delving in even deeper yet into enclosures which is enhancing my quality of playing and causing me to express myself on my instrument more uniquely and artfully. Having slowed down even more than I usually do, I am diligently tapping into ways more critical to my aspiration to play at the highest level. You are very knowledgeable and patient. Thank you for freely sharing your precious knowledge which I equate with gold and diamonds. To the diligent you are giving up rare nuggets. I am very grateful and appreciative. This is mastery for life. You are a master. Yahweh’s continued blessings of love, life, and abundance brother.

  7. Math Sore says:

    Isn’t this one way in which bebop is as constrained as bluegrass? Meanwhile, how many other strategies might we come up with for enclosing and targeting that are more free, more expressive, more jazzy?

    • Yes, enclosures are a specific way of controlling when a target is reached. Bebop uses them quite a lot, and in that sense you can consider it a constrained idiom, though I’d argue that all idioms by definition are constrained to one degree or another. This post is for people who are interested in understanding how enclosures & approaches work, as used in bebop. In theory, I agree that there are infinitely many other possibilities. Got one you like?

  8. Matthew says:

    Lots of guitar players and styles use four fingers on the left hand across four frets in chromatic relationship to each other. What if you created an enclosure (or approach to target) based on that common fingering? For example, if the target is an E note at 5th fret of the b string, place your ring finger over the E, which means pinky is over the F, index finger is over the D. A fast (and bluesy) enclosure would start on the D, ascend in quick notes (like 32nds) reaching the F and then ending on the target. So you hear D D# E F E. That sequence gives you the flat 7, Ma7, root, flat 9 and back to root, if you are in the key of E. Or, if you want a descending sequence, try using middle finger on the E, index on D#, ring finger on F, pinky on F#. Start on the top, descend past the target, then come back to it – in this sequence: F# F E D# E

    • I’d say it all depends on whether that’s something you want to hear. If so, great! If not, don’t bother. Decide what you want to play, then worry about fingerings.

  9. matthew says:

    Of course you are right. Fingering is up to the guitarist. But the example I gave is one that breaks out of the “rules” of enclosures usually insisted upon by rigid be-boppers who want everything in eighth notes (like most bluegrass). You could extend my example by doing it in triplets, or by doing it slowly. You could vary it by using two adjacent strings instead of a single string. You could vary it by playing a little trill above and then a trill below before landing on target. You could vary it a hundred jazzy and melodic ways. On the other hand, what do we get by following old rules? We sound old.

  10. Ian Vantull says:

    Greetings good brother, revisiting your work on target notes and enclosures, I was able to extract considerably more than I did before. The first time I was crash-coarsing it. However, this time I was deliberately more slowed down which is my usual mo. I’m in the habit of approaching things in this manner and in paying attention to critical points which I usually remember with ease. My keen interest disposes me to do this normally and as such minimizes or alleviates and/or harmonizes negative anxiety – approaching things like alt notes at the V5 junction. I am an in-the-moment person – present, harmonious with, and acutely attentive. I appreciate your empathetic approach. Evidently, you bring things to the moment things that are necessary to it. Humble is the master. You are unselfishly disclosing precious nuggets. I am grateful for such unselfish sharing. Yahweh’s continued blessings of love, life, and abundance.

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