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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?

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.