John Proulx
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  • Jazz Swing
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One of the most challenging topics to learn and teach in jazz education is how to interpret a jazz melody. As a living performance art, many aspects of jazz phrasing are difficult to represent with music notation. Overtime, students learn to interpret jazz melodies represented on lead sheets using established melodic and rhythmic idioms of jazz expression. In today’s Quick Tip, John Proulx shares 7 Techniques to Spice Up a Jazz Melody. You’ll learn:

Whether you are brand new to playing jazz, an intermediate student or even a music teacher, you’ll find the tips in today’s lesson to be a helpful frame of reference for interpreting jazz melodies.

Introduction to Jazz Melody

At the center of the jazz ethos is freedom of expression. It’s a music of the people in general, and of the performer in particular. When jazz audiences gather, they listen to mostly familiar compositions called jazz standards. But that’s not why they gather. They are there to witness, enjoy and celebrate masterful musical expression displayed and propagated from one generation to the next.

In the following excerpts, listen to how differently Miles Davis, Ben Webster and Chet Baker perform the melody to the A section of “Autumn Leaves.” Each performer interprets the jazz melody using their own unique, personal expression.

Miles Davis – trumpet

“Autumn Leaves” (1958)
Ben Webster – tenor sax

“Autumn Leaves” (1965)
Chet Baker – trumpet

“Autumn Leaves” (1974)

Understanding jazz requires an understanding the jazz performer. Unlike music of the Western European tradition, which traces the history of musical composition, jazz traces its history through the performance of individuals. Jazz is about personal, unique expressions.

—Paul Tanner, Trombonist, educator & author

While many timeless jazz melodies are notated and engraved in fake books, ultimately jazz melody and expression exist beyond the printed page. Therefore, jazz sheet music, known as lead sheets, serve a significantly different purpose for jazz musicians when compared to the notation of classical music scores.

What is a jazz lead sheet? How should a lead sheet be interpreted?

Lead sheets are a minimalistic form of music notation common in genres of the 20th and 21st centuries that contain a considerable amount of performers’ discretion inherent to the genre itself. Since jazz compositions are frequently written to serve as a catalyst for creative expression, precise notation is not expected or desired.

Lead sheets are commonly described as “a map” that allows jazz musicians to navigate through a tune together. Performance considerations such as chord voicings, dynamics, articulation—even some rhythms—are left up to the musicians’ playing styles. In fact, in most jazz performances, at least some of the artistic decisions are made “in the moment.”

What is melodic interpretation in jazz?

Melodic interpretation in jazz music refers to the performance practice of personalizing a jazz melody using expressive musical devices. Common techniques for personalizing a jazz melody include scoops, slides, turns, neighbor notes, ghost notes, chromatic approach tones, enclosures and rhythmic displacement or embellishment. Melodic interpretation is an essential musical skill when performing jazz from a lead sheet or fake book, which contains only an unembellished representation of a song’s melody.

Melodic Interpretation in Jazz—Learning by Listening

The primary way in which students of jazz become masters of jazz is through listening and imitation. Therefore, the best way to learn a jazz tune is by ear. In this sense, jazz learning mirrors language learning in that speaking precedes reading. Often times, students with a classical background in reading notation experience difficultly transitioning to aural learning. However, those who persist will find fresh inspiration and increased expressive capacity.

In the following section, you’ll discover 7 phrasing techniques for interpreting a jazz melody. John Proulx applies these techniques to Joseph Kosma’s jazz standard, “Autumn Leaves” (aka “Les Feuilles Mortes”). Keep in mind, John Proulx’s melodic interpretation of Kosma’s classic tune represents just one of many possibilities. Part of conscientious jazz tune study includes listening to recordings by esteemed jazz performers and pedagogues. For example, check out the following jazz piano interpretations of “Autumn Leaves.”

Wynton Kelly – piano

“Autumn Leaves” (1961)
Red Garland – piano

“Autumn Leaves” (1983)
Eddie Higgins – piano

“Autumn Leaves” (2001)

Listening to familiar jazz melodies modeled by competent jazz linguists is essential for students desiring to develop intuitive jazz sensibility. In the next section, we’ll explore 7 phrasing techniques that jazz musicians frequently use to personalize a melody.

7 Phrasing Techniques for Embellishing a Jazz Melody

In today’s Quick Tip video, John Proulx unpacks 7 specific techniques that jazz piano students can use to personalize a jazz melody. These 7 techniques include:

  1. Rhythmic Embellishment
  2. Repeated Notes
  3. Ghost Notes
  4. Chromatic Embellishment
  5. Rhythmic Sequence
  6. Melodic Sequence
  7. Countermelody

John demonstrates each of these 7 techniques on “Autumn Leaves” in the key of E minor (G Major). The downloadable backing track for today’s lesson appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. However, due to publisher’s restrictions, the lesson sheet PDF is available through our partner,

Now, let’s isolate and explore each of the 7 techniques.

1. Rhythmic Embellishment of Jazz Melody

The first technique to personalizing a jazz melody is to stylize the rhythms. This is absolutely essential when reading from a lead sheet or fake book. Remember, a lead sheet is only designed to serve as a general guide. Therefore, the melody that appears on a lead sheet depicts the essential melodic shape expressed with the simplest rhythms possible. These rhythms, however, should not be interpreted literally.

Jazz Melody as Written

Jazz Melody Autumn Leaves opening as written
In lead sheet notation, the pickup notes for the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” are notated as quarter notes. However, in performance, jazz musicians use rhythmic embellishment to stylize jazz melodies.
Jazz Melody with Rhythmic Embellishment

Jazz Melody Autumn Leaves opening with Rhythmic Embellishment
Jazz musicians interpret melodies with rhythmic embellishments such as anticipation—a device which shifts a note written on beat 1 to the “and of 4” in the preceding measure. In addition, jazz musicians use syncopation to emphasize a swing feel.

2. Repeated Notes in Jazz Melody

Jazz musicians will often go further with their rhythmic embellishments beyond simply shifting the melody notes around with syncopation. Instead, they will actually add notes to the melody. For example, the practice of playfully repeating selected melody notes is another way in which jazz musicians stylize a melody. Check out the following example from measures 5-7 of “Autumn Leaves.”

Jazz Melody as Written

Jazz Melody Autumn Leaves mm 5-7 as written
Measures 5-7 of “Autumn Leaves” as written on lead sheet.
Jazz Melody with Repeated Notes

Jazz Melody Autumn Leaves mm 5-7 with Repeated Notes
Measures 5-7 of “Autumn Leaves” interpreted with repeated notes and syncopation.

3. Ghost Notes in Jazz Melody

Another common technique that jazz musicians use to stylize melodies is to insert ghost notes (aka “swallowed notes”). This technique subtly enhances a performer’s swing feel by converting a quarter note occurring on the beat into a pair of 8th notes in which the latter 8th note is played softly, or “ghosted.” The pitch of a ghost note is lower than the melody note and is drawn from the chord symbol, usually the root or the 5th. When publishers what to indicate a ghost note in music notation, the note is either placed in parentheses or the notehead is indicated with and “x.”

Jazz Melody as Written

Jazz Melody Autumn Leaves mm 8-10 as written
Measures 8-10 of “Autumn Leaves” as written.
Jazz Melody with Ghost Note

Autumn Leaves melodic interpretation with ghost note.
“Autumn Leaves” measures 8-10 melodic interpretation with ghost note.

4. Chromatic Embellishment of Jazz Melody

Another common idiom of the jazz language is to embellish a melody with chromaticism. In other words, jazzers will often choose to approach a melody note using one or more ½ steps from outside of the primary scale. Similar to ghost notes, chromatic approach notes (or chromatic passing tones) are typically placed on an “off beat.”

A great way to get comfortable with the sound and placement of chromatic approach notes is by learning to play major, minor and dominant bebop scales. Each bebop scale contains 8-notes and is formed by adding a specific chromatic passing tone to an otherwise familiar 7-note jazz scale (ie: mixolydian, dorian, ionian…see Piano Musical Modes—The Complete Guide).

While professional jazz musicians can use chromaticism to target any diatonic note of a melody, the examples of chromatic embellishment in today’s lesson all come from patterns found within the conventional bebop scales.

Jazz Melody as Written

Autumn Leaves melody mm 9-12 as written
Measures 9-12 of “Autumn Leaves” as written.
Jazz Melody with Chromatic Embellishment

Autumn Leaves melodic interpretation with chromatic embellishment
“Autumn Leaves” measures 9-12 with chromatic embellishment.

5. Rhythmic Sequence in Jazz Melody

Another exciting way to embellish a melody is with rhythmic sequence. In music, the term sequence refers to the non-identical repetition of a small musical idea. In other words, sequence preserves some aspect of a music idea while changing another. Therefore, a rhythmic sequence is comprised of two or more phrases with the same essential rhythm, despite different notes and contours. In the following example from today’s lesson sheet, John Proulx creates a rhythmic sequence between his melody and countermelody at the conclusion of the A section.

Jazz Melody as Written

Autumn Leaves melody mm 13-16 as written
Measures 13-16 of “Autumn Leaves” as written.
Jazz Melody with Rhythmic Sequence

Autumn Leaves melodic interpretation with rhythmic sequence
“Autumn Leaves” measures 13-16 with rhythmic sequence between stylized melody and countermelody.

6. Melodic Sequence in Jazz Melody

The eleventh and twelfth measures of the B Section of “Autumn Leaves” contains a built-in harmonic sequence on the changes Em7→A7→Dm7→G7. In other words, the harmonic idea of Em7→A7 is a IIm7→V7 relationship in the key of D major. However, rather repeating these chords exactly (ie: Em7→A7→Em7→A7), the composer uses a harmonic sequence in which the key center is transposed downward by a whole step. Therefore, Dm7→G7 represents a similar IIm7→V7 relationship in C major.

Since the chord changes during this part of the tune contain a built-in harmonic sequence, John Proulx takes advantage of this opportunity to introduce a melodic sequence in his countermelody. Over the chords Em7→A7, John plays quarter note followed by two 8th notes (♩♫) …the notes are D–G–C♯. In the key of D, these notes are scale tones 1–4–7. When the chords are transposed down a whole step in the next bar to Dm7→G7, John repeats the same melody (1–4–7) and rhythm (♩♫) in C major…the notes C♮–F♮–B. Therefore, the line D–G–C♯ | C♮–F♮–B is a melodic sequence…a repeated melodic gesture from two different tonal centers.

Jazz Melody as Written

Autumn Leaves melody mm 27-28 as written
Measures 27-28 of “Autumn Leaves” as written.
Jazz Melody with Melodic Sequence

Autumn Leaves melodic interpretation with melodic sequence
John Proulx creates a melodic sequence in his countermelody in measures 27-28 of “Autumn Leaves”

7. Jazz Melody and Countermelody

Our final consideration for personalizing a jazz melody is to create a complimentary countermelody. In techniques five and six of today’s lesson, we hinted at this approach by applying rhythmic sequence and melodic sequence in two voices. However, the topic of countermelody itself (aka contrapuntal texture or contrapuntal approach) also represents an additional category for consideration.

What is a countermelody?

A countermelody is an independent voice that responds or reacts to the melody in a complimentary manner. Melody and countermelody may be played by a single player such as a pianist, or by two separate instrumentalists. An effective countermelody is most active when the primary melody contains long tones or rests.

The lesson sheet PDF for today’s Quick Tip includes John Proulx’s sample countermelody throughout the entire form of “Autumn Leaves.” Intermediate piano students can play the melody in the right hand and the countermelody in the left hand. (Note: the melody may be play “as written” or an octave higher.) In addition, advanced pianists will enjoy the challenge of playing both the melody and countermelody in the right hand. This is a particularly beneficial skill for solo piano playing.

For jazz pianists in an ensemble setting, countermelody also represents a fun alternative to chordal comping. The Lesson Resources section at the bottom of this page includes a separate practice track containing bass, drums and trumpet melody performed by Carl Rustad. You can use this track to practice playing John’s countermelody or compose your own.

Let’s examine an example of the interplay between melody and countermelody in measures 29-32 of “Autumn “Leaves.”

Jazz Melody as Written

Autumn Leaves melody mm 29-32 as written
Measures 29-32 of “Autumn Leaves” as written.
Jazz Melody with Countermelody

Autumn Leaves melody with countermelody—a contrapuntal approach
A contrapuntal approach to jazz arranging includes a statement of the melody with one or more countermelodies, as in the following example from “Autumn Leaves.”

Would you like to compose your own countermelody? In today’s Quick Tip video, John illustrates how to compose a countermelody by focusing on target tones in the upcoming chord. In other words, it is helpful to compose a countermelody by working backwards from a specific resolution note. You can explore this technique further on today’s lesson sheet by examining the following examples of countermelody with target tones:

  1. Targeting the 3rd (mm. 27–33, 36–43, 44–45, 48–55)
  2. Targeting the 6th (mm. 34–35, 46–47)
  3. Targeting the Root (mm. 58–59)


Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on 7 Techniques to Spice Up a Jazz Melody. Hopefully, you have gained additional confidence in how to interpret a lead sheet. Remember, your ears are your most valuable asset for growing as jazz communicator.

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you’ll love the following resources:

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.


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Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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