Basic Improvisation

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Authored by Matt Marvuglio, Jim Odgren, Edward Tomassi


Course Code: OPERF-110

Next semester
starts June 24

12 Weeks

Level 1

Level 1

3-Credit Tuition


Non-Credit Tuition


Learn the solo riffs and licks of the masters: Jimmy Page, BB King, Charlie Parker and others, and how to develop your own! "What notes do I play?" is the first question that comes to mind when a musician is asked to improvise. The answer is easy: notes that are within the key! Basic Improvisation is designed to get you to develop your solos, and organize your thoughts and playing with the sounds around you through a step-by-step approach that applies to all styles and any instrument. You'll begin by looking at the 12-bar blues form and the pentatonic scale, and gain a greater feel for phrasing your riffs and playing 'in the pocket' by studying rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic repetition. You'll transcribe, record, and submit for instructor review excerpts of solos from legendary players from many different genres (B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Jimmy Page, Louis Armstrong and others). You will develop an understanding of the five elements of music: melody, rhythm, harmony, form, and color. You will be able to incorporate these elements into your own playing and also relate them to other improvisers regardless of your primary instrument.

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By the end of the course, you will:

  • Learn a step-by-step approach to improvisation that applies to all styles and any instrument
  • Improve your character and tone and become more confident in your soloing ability by adding cohesiveness and variety to your playing
  • Learn to transcribe other instruments and learn the techniques and nuances of the masters on your own instrument
  • Become a more natural and spontaneous stage musician
  • Apply harmony to your improvisation by adding chord tones and chord scales
  • Introduce basic chromaticism to your playing
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Lesson 1: What Notes Do I Play?

  • Playing the C Pentatonic Scale
  • Playing the Basic Blues in C
  • Playing the Tonic
  • Playing Along with Master Improvisers

Lesson 2: Improvising from the Melody

  • Call and Response
  • Melodic Phrasing
  • Playing Two Notes
  • Playing Three Notes

Lesson 3: Hooking Up with the Band Rhythmically

  • Playing in Time
  • Adding Anticipations

Lesson 4: Minor Blues

  • A Minor Pentatonic Scale
  • Riff Blues
  • Lyric Blues
  • Rhythmic Motifs

Lesson 5: Melodic Motif

  • Adding the Blue Note
  • Four-Note Motifs
  • Harmonic Riffs

Lesson 6: Putting It All Together, Part 1

  • Solo Length
  • Register
  • Rhythmic Density
  • Expression

Lesson 7: Chord Tones

  • Chord Tone Theory
  • Using Chord Tones When Soloing
  • Principles of Voice Leading: Direct vs. Indirect

Lesson 8: Basic Chord Scale Soloing

  • Chord Scale Theory
  • Scale Tone Motifs with Rhythmic Variation
  • Voice Led Chord Scale Motifs

Lesson 9: Basic Chromatic Approach Shapes

  • Single Chromatic Approaches
  • Double Chromatic Above/Below Approaches
  • Double Chromatic Below/Above Approaches

Lesson 10: Chromatic Approach Shapes and Their Resolution to Chord Tone Motifs

  • Creating Basic Chromatic Approach Shapes
  • Single Basic Chromatic Approach Shapes Applied to Chord Tone Motifs
  • Indirect Resolution of Basic Chromatic Approach Shapes to Chord Tone Motifs

Lesson 11: Chromatic Approach Shapes to Chord Scale Motifs

  • Basic Chord Scale Segment Motifs
  • Approaches to Basic Chord Scale Motifs

Lesson 12: Putting It All Together, Part 2

  • Analysis of Contrasting Motif Lines with Mixed Chord Tones, Chord Scales, and Chromatic Approach Shapes
  • Creating Your Own Contrasting Motif Line by Mixing Chord Tones, Chord Scales, and Chromatic Approach Shapes


Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

Prerequisite Courses, Knowledge, and/or Skills
You should have at least one year of study with your instrument, be able to read treble or bass clef, and have a knowledge of the C major scale.


  • No textbooks required


  • Students are required to record video while performing with a backing track for their assignments. Options for recording video include:
    • Smartphone
    • Digital camera
    • Webcam (using either video recording software, or the video recording tool that is built into the learning environment)


  • An instrument capable of playing melodies (voice included)


  • Students are required to capture their instrumental performance, as well as monitor audio output. Options include:
    • Input (one required):
      • Instrument connected directly to audio interface (recommended electric option; alternatively, the microphone options below can be used with amplified instruments)
      • XLR microphone and audio interface (recommended acoustic option)
      • USB microphone
      • Built-in computer/mobile device microphone
    • Output (one required):
      • Headphones (recommended option; required if multitracking and/or input monitoring a microphone)
      • Studio monitors and audio interface
      • Built-in or external speakers
  • Note: Depending on your setup, you may also need XLR/instrument cables and a microphone stand.

Student Deals
After enrolling, be sure to check out our Student Deals page for various offers on software, hardware, and more. Please contact with any questions.

General Course Requirements

Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in Live Classes. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course. 

Mac Users

PC Users

All Users

  • Latest version of Google Chrome
  • Zoom meeting software
  • Webcam
  • Speakers or headphones
  • External or internal microphone
  • Broadband Internet connection


Matt Marvuglio


Matt Marvuglio (1945-2017) was Dean of the Performance Division at Berklee College. As a virtuosic flutist and composer, he traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan, premiering his compositions for jazz flute. He presented clinics for the National Flute Association, the Acoustic Society of America, and the International Flute Convention in Sao Paulo, Brazil. His composition "Simples of the Moon" for processed flute, EWI MIDI wind controller, and acoustic and electronic percussion, may be heard on the CD Divinations, by Dean Anderson. Matt's first solo album entitled Why Cry? features three of his own compositions and a number of interpretations of old favorites. His articles on jazz flute playing have appeared in The Instrumentalist. He was the curriculum editor and composer for the Berklee Practice Method series, and wrote and hosted Berklee's When Music Works DVD Series.

Jim Odgren


Jim Odgren is Academic Assistant to the Dean of the Performance Division at Berklee College of Music. Odgren is an alto saxophonist who doubles on tenor and soprano saxophones and flute. Throughout his fifteen-year career at Berklee, he has taught in the Performance Studies and Woodwind Departments. From 1980 to 1983, he toured throughout the world and recorded two LPs (Easy As Pie and Picture This) with the Gary Burton Quartet. Since then, he has recorded and/or played with Kevin Eubanks, John Scofield, Kenwood Denard, Jim Kelly, Victor Mendoza, Oscar Stagnaro, George Garzone, and many others. In 1989, he received the Dean of Faculty Award for his work in improvisation at Berklee. In 2002, Odgren released his own CD, Her Eyes. He is author of the instructional DVD, Accelerate Your Saxophone Playing, and coauthor of two books, Berklee Practice Methods: Getting Your Band Together, with Berklee Woodwind Department Chair, Bill Pierce. Odgren graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1976.

Edward Tomassi

Author & Instructor

Edward Tomassi is an active performer and bandleader, playing saxophones, clarinet, and flute. He has performed with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Carl Fontana, Hal Galper, Nick Brignola, Bob Mover, the Four Tops, and the Temptations. A professor at Berklee College of Music, since 1976, Edward has taught jazz improvisation, performance, harmony, and history. He also teaches at Brown University, and presents clinics for the Dave Liebman IASJ (International Association of Schools of Jazz), among others. He graduated from Berklee Summa Cum Laude, with a major in composition. His mentors include Dave Liebman, Charlie Mariano, George Coleman, Joe Viola, Charlie Banacos, and Jerry Bergonzi. Edward's instructional video/DVD is called Jazz Improvisation: Starting Out with Motivic Development (Berklee Press, 2003).

What's Next?

When taken for credit, Basic Improvisation can be applied towards the completion of these related programs:

Related Degree Major


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