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How To Play Modern (and sound good)

If you’ve been following us for some time, you’ve likely heard of melodic cells. But while people get them in theory, we still have plenty of people asking for help on how they can use cells more in their playing and improv.

We’re going to get into that today and talk about the types of cells, as well as three examples to help highlight how those cells can fit into your playing.

Now before we get playing, if you feel like you want to learn more about this and work on it further, make sure to check out our PDF package with backing tracks: Modern Etudes Melodic Cells. If you want to see how Jayden tackles these etudes, you’ll want to check out our accompanying YouTube video: How to Play Modern (and sound good).

And with that, let’s take it from the top!


What are melodic cells?

How to use diatonic cells

How to use chromatic cells

How to use compound cells

What are melodic cells?

In school, we’re generally taught that music is arranged as notes into measures, and those measures become phrases, systems, and so on.

But you can also think of a combination of notes as a cell. A melodic cell is a four-note fragment that can be used to make up different phrases and patterns.

Melodic cell made up of four notes
Melodic cell made up of four notes

Think of it almost as if you’re combining the four notes into one unit, like letters into a word. Likewise, combining several melodic cells can create a phrase.

Types of melodic cells

And these cells can be diatonic, chromatic, or a mixture of both.

Combining melodic cells into a phrase

By combining different cells, we are able to come up with and systematize different tensions and releases. For example, a chromatic cell can always resolve to a diatonic cell, or a diatonic cell can be shifting up a half step to create some more tension.

Combining melodic cells and transposing melodic cells

So that comes back to the question—how do you really use melodic cells in your playing?

How to use diatonic cells

Let’s jump into our first melodic cell etude, over the standard “Alone Together.”

It’s important to note that all three of these etudes we will cover will include a mixture of diatonic, chromatic, and compound cells, but we’ll focus on just one throughout each of them.

This particular etude will highlight many different diatonic cells and their movement can be easily analyzed.

Jazz standard alone together etude on melodic cells

Let’s start by breaking down some of the sections. In the first four bars, we can see clear diatonic cells. We’re treating the whole measure to be a cell in this case—with the first measure starting on the fifth on the offbeat, followed by a fourth, then a fifth again, going down to the third, the root, the seventh, then back to the root.

We’ll call that whole melodic fragment a melodic cell. It’s very pentatonic-like. Now you can see in the next measure, that the exact same cell is taken and played down a half step, but with that first note being added where the eighth note rest was. This helps create some tension because of course that doesn’t fit with the E half diminished and the A7add9 chord.

In measure 3 and 4, we change things up slightly. The cell that you see being transposed from measure to measure is actually the cell that’s played on the first two beats of each measure. You can see that we have 4, 1, 3, 5, and that cell is shifted up a half step on the first two beats of the following bars.

You can see how we can create different tensions and releases with these small fragments and how we place them and move them.

Skipping to measures 7 and 8, we have another great example of a diatonic cell being shifted down in half steps to create tension. This cell is pretty easy to spot, since it’s just 1, 2, 3, 4, and you can see that 1, 2, 3, 4 moving down two half steps before…not really resolving.

The one thing we want to mention, since you’ll see a variety of cells in these exercises and in our PDF package. You see we have all these chromatic cells that are placed in between, which often act as connectors to help our voice leading. In this particular etude, it’s good to look at measure 9 to see how we have two chromatic cells followed by a diatonic cell in measure 10.

Speaking of chromatic cells…

How to use chromatic cells

We’ll work through chromatic cells with this etude on the standard “Donna Lee.” A good place to start is to watch how Jayden does it in our accompanying YouTube video to help you follow along. You’ll want to listen for how chromatic cells allow the phrase to deviate from the harmony and how they can connect each cell to the next.

Donna Lee jazz standard using chromatic melodic cells

In the first three measures, we can see a chromatic cell in each measure. In the first bar, we have our cell starting on beat three. In the second measure, we can see our chromatic cells starting on beat one, and note four of the cell deviates just slightly from the previous measure. Otherwise, the whole cell would just be shifted up a half step.

Measure three features a chromatic cell on beat three, and this has a slightly different direction—plus it also features a different note on beat four. The chromatic cells in measure 2 and 3 lead to something else diatonic, which is allowing for good voice leading.

It’s interesting to note that measures 2 and 8 are practically identical, but they’re being played over different chords. The chromatic cell pattern in general fits nicely over both of them.

Checking out measures 10, 11, and 12, we see that chromatic cell popping up again and again. In fact, the cell in measure 10 is the same cell being used in measure one, just shifted down a few notes.

Now from 13 through until 16, you can see a lot of these diatonic cells coming back. In measure 13, we see that 5, 6, 1, 2 (or 9) being shifted down half steps. Then we see that same chromatic cell pop back up on beat three of measure 14, using it like a connector, as we saw in the previous etude.

But what happens when we mix and match our diatonic and chromatic cells? Well we end up with…

How to use compound cells

Compound cells are combinations of (usually) two cells. This could be diatonic-diatonic, chromatic-chromatic, diatonic-chromatic, chromatic-diatonic—you name it.

A great example of a compound cell is what you see in measure 15 above—where we have a 3, 4, 5, 7 cell followed by that same chromatic cell. When you combine these cells together as their own movable unit, you create a compound cell.

What you’ll find is that certain cells fall into your muscle memory easier than others, and you’ll find yourself playing them more often.

For chromatic cells in particular, there are only so many ways you can play them to get deeper into this, but we have plenty of ways you can use these same cells in different combinations throughout our PDF package Modern Etudes Melodic Cells.

Our etude here is going to be on the standard “Confirmation,” and it will demonstrate how you can use a mixture of compound diatonic and chromatic cells to create more angular melodic phrases. Check out how Jayden plays through this etude here.

Jazz standard confirmation etude using compound melodic cells

So right off the bat, we can see a repeated compound cell used in measure one and two. Then whole cell is shifted down a half step, completely disregarding the harmony of that measure. Now measures three and four you can consider to be compound cells, and they’re both different from each other.

In that third measure, we start with that chromatic cell. Then we go down the scale, 2, 1, 7, 6. The fourth measure you have 3, 4, 5, 3 followed by a chromatic scale that starts on the root of that chord.

Another interesting part of the etude is measures 7 and 8. You have these diatonic cells, where in measure 7 we’re going 1, 2, 3, 5, then we shift that up a half step. In measure 8, we’ve shifted up a couple of half steps. Then we finish off the measure with a chromatic cell making that measure a compound cell. This then shifts into the next measure, which also features diatonic cells moving up in half steps, so once again we’re connecting the dots with this chromatic cell.

Lookin at measures 14 and 15, we’ve got a much shorter compound cell, leaving out notes. then we land on the root and play a chromatic cell in measure 14 and land on the root of the third of the next chord. We pick up into the next measure and play the exact same thing down a half step. Notice that the second last note of measure 15 is just resolving down to what looks to be a major seventh, but really we are just outside of the harmony. This is more of that tension that the cells are creating.

By being familiar with the different ways we can apply diatonic and chromatic cells (along with compound cells), we can more confidently use them to construct melodic phrases and have greater control over our use of tension and release. Knowing how and where to use these building blocks in tunes is a crucial stepping stone to allowing you to improvise more freely and play outside of the harmony.

That’s all for today, but if you want to learn more about this subject, you’ll definitely want to check out our PDF package with backing tracks—Modern Etudes Melodic Cells, along with our accompanying YouTube video, where Jayden walks you through each of these etudes.

We’ll see you next time!

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