BA Music and Drama

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Jazz Improvisation, Theory, and Analysis

Course unit fact file
Unit code MUSC21500
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Full year
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


‘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.


Available as Free Choice but note prerequisite of A Level Music or Grade VIII Theory or equivalent.


  • 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.
  • To encourage students to relate their aural experiences as critical listeners to other aspects of practical musicianship, including performance, composition, teaching, musicology and analysis.
  • 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.
  • This course will offer students the foundations and tools to develop as life-long learners in the practice of jazz improvisation.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of the course students will:

  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • Engage with current debates about techniques and practices in jazz improvisation.
  • Engage in practice-based research through transcription, performance, and analysis of specific musical examples.

Intellectual skills

By the end of the course students will:

  • Critically review and consolidate knowledge, skills, practices and thinking about jazz music in American culture as well as diverse cultures worldwide.
  • Demonstrate competence in the understanding and manipulation of musical line and harmony according to appropriate conventions.
  • Analyse and examine diverse forms of discourse relating to the practice of jazz improvisation.
  • 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:

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

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of the course students will:

  • Apply skills in critical listening to other aspects of music-making, including performance, composition, teaching, musicology or other form of analysis.
  • Demonstrate enhanced analytical skills in the aural assessment of music.
  • Demonstrate enhance performance skills in jazz music. 
  • Show an aesthetic awareness of jazz from a range of different perspectives. 
  • 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: 1. Make more informed interpretative decisions when performing. 2. Apply general principles from this course (where applicable) to composition, performance and analysis. 3. Write about and perform jazz music in a more informed way.

Assessment methods

Assessed task Weighting within unit
Coursework project (transcription and performance of examples)                   50%
Exam                  50%


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Weekly tasks in lectures


Feedback to transcriptions/presentation


Feedback to final exam



Recommended reading

  • Aebersold, Jamey. How to Play Jazz and Improvise: Volume 1. Jamey Aebersold Jazz, New Albany, IN: 1992.
  • Aebersold, Jamey. The II-V-I Progression: Volume 3. Jamey Aebersold Jazz, New Albany, IN: 1974.
  • Aebersold, Jamey. A New Approach to Jazz Improvisation. Vol. 54. New Albany, IN: Jamey Aebersold, n.d. (Book and CD play-a-long set.)
  • Baker, David. Jazz Improvisation: A Comprehensive Method for All Musicians. Alfred Music; Revised edition, 2005.
  • Bergonzi, Jerry. Inside Improvisation for All Instruments 7 Volume set By Jerry Bergonzi (volumes 1-7). Advance Music, 2007.
  • Berkman, David. The Jazz Harmony Book. Sher Music Co, 2013. 
  • Boling, Mark E., The Jazz Theory Workbook. Rottenburg: Advance Music, 1993.
  • Collins, Denis. Music Theory and Its Methods: Structures, Challenges, Directions. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2013.
  • Coker, Jerry. Patterns for Jazz: A Theory Text for Jazz Composition and Improvisation (Treble Clef Instruments). Non Basic Stock Line, 1982. 
  • Cork, Conrad. The New Guide to Harmony with Lego Bricks. Tadley Ewing Publications; Revised and extended ed. edition, 1996. 
  • Denisch, Beth. Contemporary Counterpoint: Theory & Application. Berklee Press Publications, 2017.  
  • Felts, Randy. Arranging Reharmonization Techniques. G. Schirmer, 2002. 
  • Galper, Hal. Forward Motion: from Bach to Bebop, a Corrective Approach to Jazz Phrasing Petaluma, CA: Sher Music, 2005.
  • Gates, Jerry. Arranging for Horns. Berklee Press, 2015. 
  • Gioia, Ted. The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.  
  • Griffin, Michael. Modern Harmony Method: Fundamentals of Jazz and Popular Harmony. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. 
  • Haerle, Dan. The Jazz Language: A Theory Text for Jazz Composition and Improvisation. Alfed Music, 1982. 
  • Haerle, Dan. Scales for Improvisation: A practical method for all instruments. Studio 224, Miami, FL: 1975.
  • Hal Leonard Cooperation. The Bb Real Book: Sixth Edition. Hal Leonard Corporation; 6th edition, 2004.  
  • Hal Leonard Cooperation. The Eb Real Book: Sixth Edition. Hal Leonard Corporation; 6th edition, 2004.  
  • Hal Leonard Cooperation. The Real Book: Sixth Edition. Hal Leonard Corporation; 6th edition, 2004.  
  • Hamilton, Andy. Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser's Art. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2007. 
  • Hobson, Vic, and Halverson, Peter D. Creating Jazz Counterpoint: New Orleans, Barbershop Harmony, and the Blues. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
  • Jaffe, Andy. Jazz Harmony. Advance Music Gmbh; 3rd ed. Edition, 2015. 
  • Larson, Steve. Analysing Jazz: a Schenkerian Approach. Place of publication not identified: Pendragon, 2009.
  • Levine, Mark. The Jazz Piano Book. Petaluma, California: Sher Music Co., 1989.
  • Levine, Mark. The Jazz Theory Book Petaluma, CA: Sher Music, 1995.
  • Liebman, David. A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody. Alfred Music, 2015.
  • Miller, Ron. Modal Jazz Composition & Harmony Vol.1 & 2. Advance Music, 2000.
  • Mulholland, Joe, and Hojnacki, Thomas. The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony Boston. MA, USA: Berklee Press, 2016.
  • Nelson, Oliver. Patterns for Improvisation. Jamey Aebersold Jazz, 1966. 
  • Nettles, Barrieand and Richard Graf. The Chord Scale Theory & Jazz Harmony. Alfred Music, 2015. 
  • Pease, Frederick, and Rick Mattingly. Jazz Composition: Theory and Practice. Boston, MA: Berklee Press, 2003.
  • Pease, Frederick, Ken Pullig and Michael Gold. Modern Jazz Voicings: Arranging for Small and Medium Ensembles. Boston, MA: Berklee Press, 2001.
  • Pease, Ted, and Ken Pull

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Demonstration 6
Practical classes & workshops 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 67

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Alexander Gagatsis Unit coordinator

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