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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
ScaleMate is the interactive app for visualizing scales. It shows you scales in ways that make their harmonic qualities apparent, while playing you the sounds you see. Choose from its library of scales or use it as a playground to create on your own.
Random Roots is a groundbreaking practice app I've created for players looking to deepen their musicianship and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their practice. Guaranteed that you've never experienced anything like it.
Average App Store rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 4.8 out of 5 (100+ reviews)