School of Music

MUS 331 AND MUS 530


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Remembering: CLIFFORD BROWN (1930-1956)



Improvised music has a long history throughout the world, but in the twentieth century the immediate focus is on the United States and its only original art form, JAZZ. This article is the first in a series which contains materials for the beginning jazz improvisation student.



Improvised solos can be constructed in many different ways. Often, however, a solo begins with an organized series of pitches/rhythms consisting of only a few notes. An entire solo can evolve from these small units, called motives . Motives can emphasize rhythmic and/or pitch relationships and are often repeated, for greater emphasis.

An example of a simple repeated motive which uses only two pitches and lasts no longer than a few beats is seen below.

A precise performance of this notation can be heard here. On the other hand, a performance by a jazz player might contain alterations of both pitch and duration, not because of a lack of attention but because of the inadequacies of western notation. In general, pitch is expected to deviate from "classical" precision, yet the most elusive quality about jazz music is its rhythm and accent structure. Thus, one needs to be equally careful as to what is added and what is left unplayed in the relationship between duration notation and jazz performance.


Charleston Motive

The rhythm of motive A above is taken from Charleston, the popular song (and dance) of the Twenties, heard here. In the original tune, despite changes in pitch, the rhythm stays basically the same throughout (the notation/performance relationships notwithstanding) This specific rhythm is one of the most often used motives in jazz history. The accents have shifted throughout the years, from the first note, as heard in the original composition, to an accented second note, as notated in Ex. A.

Other interesting relationships include the use of the rhythm retrograde of the Charleston motive as the initial motive of such compositions as JADA and later in tunes such as GEORGIA ON MY MIND or Ellington's C JAM BLUES . The original Charleston motive has not been restricted to the beginning of a phrase, however. It has occurred in different parts of the measure, in the middle or end of a phrase, or as part of a longer phrase extension and/or repeated within different time spans within the same phrase. Not only has it been used extensively as a melodic device, but also remains one of the best known comping i.e. accompanying rhythms. From the brass-section punctuations of swing era big bands to Miles Davis' quartet recordings of So What , this simple two-note pattern has provided the rhythmic energy behind a great many jazz performances.


Charleston Variations

Jazz accents typically occur on the "other side" of the metric accents, thus providing both a tug against the meter and a balance within it. Thus, in a series of quarter notes in 4/4 time, the metric accents occur on beats 1 and 3 and jazz accents (since about 1940 or so) appear on beats 2 and 4. Eighth notes work the same way. The 4/4 meter implies stress on the first eighth note of a beat and jazz accents occur on the second (with the durations of the eighth note pair developing into a near triplet relationship). In the notational examples discussed so far, the Charleston motive has always started on metrically strong beats of a 4/4 measure (which determines its second attack to occur on metrically weak beats i.e. positions of strong jazz accents.) With the exception of So What , which starts on beat 3, all the previous examples begin on beat 1. So, the all-important characteristic of accent balance is present in the Charleston motive since its two attack points contain both a strong metric accent (beat 1 or 3) and a strong jazz accent (beat 2 1/2 or 4 1/2).

What happens to the accents if the Charleston motive doesn't begin on a "strong" beat" Or, if its repetition occurs sooner, at a different place in the measure? First, it is important to be aware of the meter at all times. Therefore, the next example will include the earlier cymbal rhythm along with the Charleston variations.

Space Between Motivic Entrances

The recorded example as well as the notation above (notated precisely as performed) includes both Ex. A and the cymbal rhythm for four measures. Ex. B enters on beat 2 and continues with only one beat silence between entrances. Thus, Ex. B eventually enters on each beat of the measure.

Notice how meter is affected differently in the two examples. Ex. A emphasizes 4/4 meter by its entrance on each beat 1, whereas Ex. B seems to counteract the 4/4 meter altogether because its entrances do not coincide with the metric strong points. Partly due to its evenly spaced entrances, Ex. B begins to suggest a new meter altogether i.e. a superimposed 3/4 meter over the 4/4.


Higher Structural Levels

It is also possible to emphasize or re-enforce a given meter through the use of off beat, or syncopated, accents, resulting in a higher structural level. In the Example below, as the Charleston motive is repeated, it is transformed into a larger unit, thus providing a hierarchy of accents within the four attack points. You will hear the two motives without pitch relationships and the metric timekeeping of the cymbals. See if you can identify the placement of the rhythm and accents within a 4/4 meter. Can you sing the example as its being played? Can you notate it?

Listen to a recording of the same rhythm, this time along with the 4/4 cymbal pattern and two alternating pitches. Compare what you hear now with your notated rhythms above. Perhaps you may have started the earlier transcription on beat one and then became uncertain about the rhythm at the beginning of your second measure. It doesn't work! Here's why!

Compare the notation below with the sounds once again. Notice that there are no attack points on beats one or three of either measure, thus laying the groundwork for metric instability. Also, of the four attack points in the grouping, only two of them occur on a beat--beat two. The others appear, with the help of a dynamic accent (>) on the second eighth note of a beat (beats three and four). It seems that the meter will have become completely destroyed with such a lack of accomodation, yet the relationship between the accents not only stabilizes 4/4 meter but rejuventates it.



Accent Motives

As Example B above resembles a superimposed 3/4 meter over the 4/4 cymbal rhythm because of its evenly spaced repetitions, Example C contains only half a beat between the motive and its repetition, thus creating a larger, more complex structure. (The repetition of the composite does not begin until the third measure.) The unity of the composite does not exclusively rely on the shoving together of the two motives, however. The placement of off-beat accents at the end of the first motive and at the beginning of the second, deflect the identity of the original Charleston motives and point up the unity of the new four-note group. In addition, the two dynamic accents are not equal, but relate to each other in a hierarchial manner, as shown in Ex. D below.


Such a relationship between unequally stressed accents, adjacent or in close proximity to each other, becomes a structural device at a higher level called an "accent motive." Accent motives can grow out of rhythmic motives, but their higher structural level makes them relatively independent, as shown above.


Accent Phrases

Especially important in jazz music, where accent hierarchies often define a phrase, an accent motive can develop into an "accent phrase."


  • Clap the rhythms. Find the various attack points which should be accented. (Remember differences between notated and performed 8ths.)
  • Clap the line again, to try to find the accent hierarchies in the phrase.
  • Where are the accent motives represented by the accent hierarchies?
  • How do the accent motives work together to unite into an accent phrase?
  • The accents can be compared to the Charleston rhythm motive in that the time span between the two attack points are both 1 1/2 beats apart. The heavier accent occurs on the second accent, both in the initial appearance and its repetition. The sounds , heard in context, demonstrate a larger organization. The resultant accent motives occur in the same part of the first two measures. In previous examples such an arrangement would have simply repeated itself, as in a response pattern or riff. Here, however, the last entrance of the accent motive appears in compressed form--a shorter distance from its prior appearances and even the motive, itself, has become 1/2 beat shorter. This development by compression assures an increase in tension. Further unification of the material is accomplished by the balance of the accent points (on the second note of the motive during its first two appearances vs. the first note of the motive during its last occurrence. Ex. F shows all the extraneous rhythms stripped away, leaving only the accent motives.


    Clap these accents and you will notice that each accent motive gradually crescendos toward the end, culminating into an accent phrase. Pitches can be helpful but not essential in the analysis of accent hierarchies. (Ex. E contains the rhythms from the first phrase of the well-known jazz composition, Confirmation by Charlie Parker.) Rhythm motives, therefore, can evolve into accent motives which can further develop into accent phrases. All these elements can function and/or be analyzed without the aid of pitches. Drummers should be able to swing using only the snare drum, for example. Yet, the development of small pitch units into phrases is equally (but not more) important and will be discussed in the next article.


    --All Article 1 materials by Joan Wildman--

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