Creating Melodic Lines from Scales and Arpeggios

Creating Melodic Lines from Scales and Arpeggios

How not to sound like a textbook when you're soloing

You can get started creating your own melodic lines with simple scales and arpeggios immediately. It is so often understood in jazz improvisation that we are to play the "right" notes over various chords.

And while we talk about and teach these "right" notes, we often forget to talk about how to use them! Today we will discuss not sounding like a textbook in jazz improvisation.

This is a vast subject, but here are a few simple ideas to get you thinking about and developing your own language for jazz improvisation. Ready? Go!

The Two Approaches

The first approach concerns the use of arpeggios: an arpeggio is when we play each note of the chord individually (in succession) instead of simultaneously. A straightforward example of an arpeggio is the note sequence Root, 3rd, 5th, 7th. Using arpeggios to create your musical lines is generally referred to as a vertical approach to improvising.

For example:

Jazz Improvisation: Arpeggios

See this article on jazz improvisation using arpeggios


The second approach is horizontal. The horizontal approach uses specific modes associated with each chord to develop melodic ideas in your music.

For example:

Jazz Improvisation: Scales

See this article on improvisation using scales


Of course, during a typical jazz solo, vertical (arpeggios) and horizontal (scales) concepts are blended together seamlessly. Here are a few examples to get you started in thinking about your playing using these two approaches without sounding like a textbook!


Exercises : The Reference PDF

Here's the PDF with all jazz improv melodic lines examples on this page:

Not Sounding Like a Textbook - Preview

Jazz Improvisation: Download the PDF Reference here...


1 - Arpeggios

Using just notes from the arpeggios play simple melodic lines (musical phrases) in two directions: ascending and descending. An arpeggio being made of 4 notes you can start on any note you like.

Start on the root, third, fifth or seventh but keep the notes in the same order. Here are the four possibilities :


The rhythm will be just eight notes, for now. Here are two good starting points on Dm7 and G7 :

creatingmelodiclinesexample1a -

Ascending - EXAMPLE 1A

creatingmelodiclinesexample1b -

Descending - EXAMPLE 1B


Of course you can combine the ideas of ascending and descending and get something like this (on C major 7th chord):

creatingmelodiclinesexample1c -

Ascending and Descending - EXAMPLE 1C


2 - Scales

Starting with any note in the scale, play a group of three consecutive notes. Once again, use eighth notes as your primary rhythmic material.

Ascending - EXAMPLE 2A
Descending - EXAMPLE 2B
Ascending and descending - EXAMPLE 2C

creatingmelodiclinesexample2a -  creatingmelodiclinesexample2b -  creatingmelodiclinesexample2c -

Once you "get" the concept, create your own lines ASAP !


3 - Mixed Approaches

Of course, mixing horizontal and vertical (scales and arpeggios), it will start to sound more "real" and probably like some lines you hear on jazz recordings.

creatingmelodiclinesexample3 - jazz

Mix the two approaches together!


Real Jazz Improvisation:

Creativity using Basic Musical Building Blocks

Notice how all three of these approaches only use notes form the major scale! You can use the D Dorian mode for Dm7, G Mixolydian mode for G7 and the C Major scale for C chord. Still, only the notes C D E F G A B are present! See this article about jazz scales...

By exploiting the shapes and structures available to us we create ideas that our ear (and hopefully the ear of the listener) enjoys. Through simple devices such as repetition and motivic development we instantaneously create phrases that our ears can understand. This is the crux of jazz improvisation.

If you consider the goal of music, be it improvised or composed, to be to communicate ideas in the form of language, then it makes sense to need some sort of structure in order to communicate in a way that both, listeners and players, can understand.

Think of making musical statements.

Some of these structures are more complicated than others, but they are building blocks nevertheless. For example, the repeated structure of descending arpeggios can give enough continuity to your line to have it sound like a statement. You can also build from a simple two or three note motif.

These are simple ways to get you started creating your own melodies for jazz improvisation. As you are exploring each approach, take the time to listen to closely to what you are playing. Ask yourself, what sounds good to your ears?

Of course, this is only the beginning. Create some other options for yourself (there are so many!) and discover your sound!

Next, try your hand at some jazz improv with our FREE guide!

This guide will teach you the very basics of jazz improv covering subjects such as outlining the changes, hitting the right notes, and most importantly making music. We’ll cover the basics with you and take you through an actual jazz standard showing you how to play over it!

beginners guide to improv w store background

**Notes from the editor**This post was updated 11/23/2020. Feature image and layout updated.