Preparing video…

Jazz Improvisation

Learn the basic concepts of improvisation from Gary Burton, one of the most renowned improvisers in the jazz world, including the mental, melodic, and harmonic processes that contribute to the instinctive skills that an improviser puts to use when taking a solo.


Course at a Glance

About the Course

While many people are fans of jazz and understand that musicians are often “making up” the notes they are playing during a performance, most people—often including musicians, themselves, who are beginning to learn improvising—aren’t clear about what exact processes take place to enable this to happen. The purpose of this course is to introduce the basic concepts of modern improvisation and how to go about mastering the different musical and mental skills involved.

Course author Gary Burton codifies a sought-after approach to improvisation that has been at the core of Berklee College of Music's curriculum for decades. Students who complete this course will know what to practice and how to practice the various aspects of improvising, in addition to understanding how the improviser spontaneously communicates to the listeners through their musical creations.

Course Syllabus

Lesson 1: Improvisation as a Language

This lesson explores how improvisation uses our language abilities to construct logical melodic phrases. It introduces the concept of musical speech with vocabulary and grammar, when applied to improvisation.

Lesson 2: The Improviser’s Vocabulary

This lesson examines the use of chord outlines. It identifies the most commonly occurring chord scales and how to practice them in order to assimilate them.

Lesson 3: Making Scale Choices in Real Time

This lesson introduces a set of guidelines for determining the correct choices for scales in various harmonic situations.

Lesson 4: Harmony for the Improviser

In this lesson, you will learn about the different types of harmony movement and resolution, and how the improviser uses them when playing through the different types of chord progressions.

Lesson 5: Theme and Variation

In this lesson, you will learn about theme development and establishing continuity of melodic phrases and ideas to build musical story lines  as a basis for improvisations.

Recommended Background

You should have at least an intermediate level of playing ability on your instrument, basic note reading experience, a knowledge of chord symbols (C7, Gm7, F7b9, Abm7, for example) and should, at a minimum, have tried improvising on some basic songs such as 12-bar blues or some familiar standard tunes.

Course Format

The course consists of video demonstrations, with integrated quizzes that allow you to reinforce your knowledge of the material before moving on. You will also have assignments that ask you to submit recorded examples of your playing for peer review.


  • What do I need in order to record my assignments?
During the course, you will be asked to submit recorded examples of your playing. In order to do this, you will need your computer's built-in microphone or an external microphone plugged directly into your computer (via built-in ports or an external audio interface), in addition to basic audio recording software, such as Audacity, that will allow you to record yourself playing and save the recording in MP3 format.