BA Music and Drama / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Jazz Improvisation, Theory, and Analysis

Unit code MUSC21501
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
Available as a free choice unit? No


‘Improvisation is everywhere, but it’s very hard to see because this ubiquitous practice of everyday life, fundamental to the existence and survival of every human formation, is as close to universal as contemporary critical method could possibly entertain’ (George Lewis, Columbia University Lecture, March 2011). In this course, we will focus on jazz improvisation in the first half of the twentieth century, in North-America, to explore the foundations and performance strategies that have propelled jazz into a musical practice currently present in every corner of the world. We will examine a range of models of musical organisation in jazz improvisation, the musical parameters that have defined it (theory, harmony, rhythm, context, schemata, patterns and their variations), to form a stylistic understanding of how this music developed and what it is comprised of. Throughout, the focus will be on process and practice as research, which students will achieve through transcription, analysis and performance, complemented by a range of secondary texts.


  1. To enable students to develop and enhance their listening, performance and understanding of jazz improvisation and to translate this knowledge into appropriate forms of notation and performance.
  2. To encourage students to relate their aural experiences as critical listeners to other aspects of practical musicianship, including performance, composition, teaching, musicology and analysis.
  3. To allow students to develop an understanding of jazz improvisation in different periods in the twentieth century and to put the knowledge acquired into practice.
  4. This course will offer students the foundations and tools to develop as life-long learners in the practice of jazz improvisation.



Early jazz and melodic paraphrase

Guide-tone improvisation: connecting melodic points

Barry Harris and jazz improvisation of the 1930s-1940s

Hap Galper: Forward motion and cell theory

Diminished Axis substitutions

Song Analysis

Transcription and Performance

Acquiring ‘the vocabulary’: method of developing variations

Jazz and blues form

Teaching and learning methods

        i.            Throughout the course students are expected to prepare for weekly lectures which will take the form of listening sessions with discussion.

       ii.            Students will be required to transcribe and perform four jazz performances (1-2mins each), and be able to demonstrate analytical thinking in terms of the content of their transcriptions.

     iii.            Students will become familiar with forms, stylistic differences and sonic signatures of various players. It is encouraged that students develop and share a diary of listening and viewing to expand their knowledge and engagement with jazz music.


Knowledge and understanding

By the end of the course students will:

        i.            Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the history, development and current landscape of jazz improvisation in North America and, the world, with a particular emphasis on the musical elements that have defined it the first half of the twentieth century.

       ii.            Describe, theorise, interpret and evaluate musical and performance texts (improvisations/compositions), from a range of sources (scores/recordings/video), and from a range of critical perspectives.

     iii.            Engage with current debates about techniques and practices in jazz improvisation.

                    iv.           Engage in practice based research through transcription, performance, and analysis of specific                           musical examples.

Intellectual skills

        i.            Critically review and consolidate knowledge, skills, practices and thinking about jazz music in American culture as well as diverse cultures worldwide.

       ii.            Demonstrate competence in the understanding and manipulation of musical line and harmony according to appropriate conventions.

     iii.            Analyse and examine diverse forms of discourse relating to the practice of jazz improvisation

     iv.           Demonstrate a capacity to apply theoretical and critical concepts to the understanding and analysis of jazz.


Practical skills

Through the study and performance of appropriate jazz styles, students will develop advanced technical skills together with an understanding of a range of interpretative principles. They will be able to perform their choice of transcriptions of performances with accuracy, fluency and control, demonstrating an understanding of content, and linking therefore practice with critical thinking (practice based research). Specifically, with the successful completion of this course students will:


  1. Apply the knowledge in theory and harmony to improvise in diverse jazz styles in real time.
  2. Transcribe musical improvisation with appropriate conventions and perform to make critical observations on its content.
  3. Demonstrate skills in the identification and analysis of specific musical information relating to melody, rhythm, harmony and form.
  4. Show an ability to analyse aurally a range of jazz styles and to communicate their understanding in appropriate performance and notation.
  5. Demonstrate a knowledge base of schemas and pattern appropriate to jazz styles.
  6. Demonstrate strong conceptual understanding of the compositions performed together with an ability to communicate this knowledge effectively.


Transferable skills and personal qualities

        i.            Apply skills in critical listening to other aspects of music-making, including performance, composition, teaching, musicology or other form of analysis.

       ii.            Demonstrate enhanced analytical skills in the aural assessment of music.

     iii.            Demonstrate enhance performance skills in jazz music.

     iv.            Show an aesthetic awareness of jazz from a range of different perspectives.

   v.         Show flexibility and imagination in translating aural experiences into appropriate visual                       representations and in communicating these experiences using appropriate language and                   performance.

Employability skills

Improvisation is a process necessary to any professional musician. Students who complete this course will find the tools acquired invaluable in their careers as performers but also as teachers in a classroom (whether in schools or teaching instruments / voice and guiding pupils through theory exams). Furthermore, they will: i. Make more informed interpretative decisions when performing. ii. Apply general principles from this course (where applicable) to composition, performance and analysis. iii. Write about and perform jazz music in a more informed way.

Assessment methods

Assessment task

Formative or Summative


Weighting within unit (if summative)

Portfolio of transcriptions (performed in class)


15-20 mins


Portfolio of transcriptions (notated)






90 mins



Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Weekly tasks in lectures


Feedback to class presentation of transcriptions (performed)

Formative, then summative

Feedback to notated portfolio of transcriptions


Feedback to final exam



Recommended reading

Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.

Galper, Hal. Forward Motion: from Bach to Bebop: A Corrective Approach to Jazz Phrasing. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music, 2005

Levine, Mark. The Jazz Theory Book. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music, 1995.

Levine, Mark. The Jazz Piano Book. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music, 1989.

Mulholand, Joe and Tom Hojnacki. The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony. Boston: Berklee Press, 2013.

Pease, Ted. Jazz Composition: Theory and Practice. Boston, Berklee Press, 2004.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Practical classes & workshops 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Alexander Gagatsis Unit coordinator

Return to course details