MUS 230: Improvisation I

Instructor: Dr. Jonathan Noffsinger
1 credit hour


MUS 230 or permission of instructor

Course Goals & Objectives

To aid the student in her/his development as a jazz musician through an introduction to and familiarization with traditional avenues for self-advancement in improvisational techniques.

Required Materials

  • notebook and music manuscript notebook with soft lead pencils
  • cassette tape player with several blank cassettes
  • Access to a piano
  • 3.5 inch high density computer floppy disk (unformatted or Macintosh formatted)

Class Procedures

Each lecture will cover the topic listed and its application to melodic improvisation. Lectures will be conducted on a seminar basis. Labs will involve extensive playing and singing in the form of scales, arpeggios, patterns, jazz tunes, and improvising solos. Study of each tune will be accompanied by discussion, analysis, and listening to important recordings. Some items for study will be placed on reserve in the Media Resource Center. Some tunes likely to be covered include:

  • “So What”, “Impressions”(32 bar AABA, minor key/modal)
  • “Giant Steps” (32 bar ABAC Hardbop tune)
  • “All The Things You Are” (64 bar AA’BA” Standard)
  • “The Blues”(primarily the 12-bar form with many different heads)

Tests & Examinations

All tests and examinations will have either a written or playing component or a combination of both. This is a performance oriented class. It is expected that the student will be able to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts discussed through her/his playing in class. Therefore, much outside preparation may be necessary.

Grading Policy

The student’s final grade will be drawn from grades received for each component of the course:

3 Transcriptions: 35%
4 Tests (minimum): 15%
Mid-Term Exam: 20%
Final Exam: 20%
Class Participation: 10%

95%-100% = A
90%-94% = A-
86%-89% = B+
82%-85% = B
79%-81% = B-
75%-78% = C+
71%-74% = C
68%-70% = C-
64%-67% = D+
60%-63% = D
57%-59% = D-
0%-56% = F

Three transcriptions will be done by the student in the course of the semester. The first transcription will be of a simple melody well known to the student. The second transcription will be accompanied by a written analysis. The third transcription will also be accompanied by a written analysis and will be referred to as the final project. The final project will consist of a solo transcription of a jazz artist by the student to be selected with the approval of the instructor. It will be accompanied by a 5 – 10 page typewritten, double-spaced paper analyzing the music and giving brief historical and biographical information on the artist.

Attendance Policy

Participation in each class is fundamental to developing an understanding of the material. Two unexcused absences will result in a reduction by one letter grade (from A to B for example). Tardiness will not be tolerated. Excessive tardiness will be treated as an unexcused absence. An excused absence may be defined as a lack of presence at a scheduled class because of: 1) a conflict with another required University function, or, 2) for compelling personal reasons such as a death in the family or a serious illness. When possible every effort should be made by the student to notify the instructor, personally, a minimum of 24 hours in advance of the absence.

Personal Conduct

It is hoped that students participating in this course will be challenged to achieve their full potential. At the same time, we are committed to providing a non-threatening learning environment. No conduct, which may be regarded as harassing as defined in the University of Alabama’s stated policy will be tolerated.

Disability Accommodations

To request disability accommodations, please contact Disabilities Services (348-4285). After initial arrangements are made with that office, contact the instructor.

Course Outline

This is subject to change. Dependent on the progress of the class, the time-line may be changed.

  • Week 1: Introduction to Language of Jazz. Theory Pre-test (does not affect your grade) and Theory Review. Chord and Scale Spelling, Singing and Playing. Introduction to the Jazz Improvisation Lab.
  • Week 2: Improvisation on “So What/Impressions.” Introduction of Digital Patterns and Essential Licks. Test 1 on Chord and Scale Spelling and Playing.
  • Week 3: Continued improvisation on “So What.” Discussion of transcription techniques. Introduction to techniques of melodic construction for improvisation. Transcription 1 Due.
  • Week 4: Apply Digital Patterns and Essential Licks to exercise tracks of play-a-longs, “Giant Steps” and other tunes. This procedure willcontinue for several weeks. Test 2 on “So What/Impressions,” techniques of melodic construction in improvisation.
  • Week 5: Continued pattern practice and application. Introduction of ii–V–I. Learn and apply 7th-3rd resolution on ii–V. Introduction of altered chords and scale choices.
  • Week 6: Continued pattern practice and application to all assigned Bebop and Standard vehicles. Discussion of intensity-building devices and melodic development techniques. Perform melodies and improvise on all assigned tunes. Test 3 on Chord/Scale identification.
  • Week 7: Continued practice and application of scale forms and melodic devices. Transcription & Analysis Due.
  • Week 8: Mid-term Exam Written & Playing on Bebop and Standard tunes, Voice leading, and Chord/Scale nomenclature. Select solo for Final Project.
  • Week 9: The Blues. Discussion of horizontal versus vertical playing. Assign Blues tunes to learn. Listen to good models.
  • Week 10-12: Perform assigned blues tunes. Test 4 on the Blues chord progression. Continued in-class listening with emphasis on uniqueness, structure, and style.
  • Week 13 & 14: Perform all assigned blues tunes. Track progress on Final project
  • Week 15: Final Exam on blues vehicles, plus written exam. Final Project Due.


Improvising Jazz by Jerry Coker
Complete Method for Improvisation by Jerry Coker
How to Listen to Jazz by Jerry Coker
Patterns for Jazz by Jerry Coker
The Jazz Language by Dan Haerle
A New Approach to Ear Training for Jazz Musicians by David Baker
A New Approach to Jazz Improvisation by Jamey Aebersold