Bracketing: Some Chromatic Exercises

In a previous article on bracketing for jazz improvisers, I described the melodic device of emphasizing a note by surrounding it with changing tones. Since bracketing is used extensively by jazz soloists, it makes sense to develop an approach for practicing this technique in a way that can help you apply it readily and easily to your improvisations.

The following exercises will help you develop chops for a kind of bracketing that I’ll call chromatic bracketing because the upper and lower neighbors are often both chromatically altered in order to achieve a half-step approach to the target note from above and below.

More commonly, the upper neighbor remains unaltered, diatonic to its key, while the lower neighbor is raised. You can also have fully diatonic brackets in which no alteration of either note occurs. In this post, however, we’ll deal with chromatic brackets.

Chromatic Intervals

Perhaps you’re familiar with the following chromatic scale exercise:

Chromatic Major Seconds

If not, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Hop to it, Grasshopper! It’s an abbreviation of a chromatic scale workout featuring the interval of a major second, and you need to know it throughout the full range of your instrument–not just the descending version shown here, but the ascending version as well.

“But why? What’s the point of mastering such a dry-as-dust technical exercise?”

Good for you! You’re thinking about practical application, not just building technique for technique’s sake. And when it comes to bracketing, the above exercise is a building block that can help give you mastery. Let’s call it step one in an organized approach to developing bracketing proficiency.

“Great, so what’s step two?”

I’m so glad you asked!

Target notes

Each couplet of notes in the preceding exercise serves to bracket the first note of the couplet that follows it. For instance, E and D bracket Eb; Eb and Db bracket D; D and C bracket C#; and so forth. In each instance, you have a chromatic upper and lower neighbor surrounding a target note, thus:

Target Notes

So…step two: apply this pattern to the entire chromatic scale, up and down your instrument. (This is a great way to go about learning the first chromatic scale exercise shown farther up.)

Got it down cold? Good. In fact, a fantastic achievement for the time it took you to move from that last paragraph to this one. You’ll make Coltrane look like a piker.

Just messin’ witcha! I’ll be serious, now, promise. Let’s say that you have in fact worked through the exercise of chromatic brackets with target notes. The question still remains, how do you apply it to practical playing situations?

Presenting step three, where it all comes together…

Practical application

The following exercise consists of three licks, each of which begins with a chromatic bracket and a target note. I’ve supplied some chords to give each lick a context, but I haven’t tried to create any particular progression from one bar to the next, just offer three examples among a host of possibilities for utilizing the bracketing technique.

Bracketed licks

Note that the last bar leads with not just one, but two couplets from the chromatic scale exercise. You can use as many couplets as you wish in your playing, guided by your own sense of good taste, before resolving the last couplet to a target note that launches you into a new idea.

More options to choose from

The material here has concerned itself with chromatic bracketing based on the interval of a major second. But it’s only intended to get you started. There are plenty of ways that you can expand on the concepts shown here.

You can invert the couplets (e.g. D to E targeting Eb; Db to Eb targeting D; and so on).

Or you can use the interval of a minor third, which can help you get a better feel for brackets that use a diatonic upper neighbor and a chromatic lower neighbor (e.g. D to B targeting C; C# to A# targeting B; C to A targeting Bb).

For that matter, if you really want to get into it, you can work through the chromatic scale with all kinds of intervals–major thirds, perfect fourths, major sixths…take your choice. You can apply the principles described in this post to all of them. As you move beyond neighboring tones into wider intervals, I’m not sure you can correctly call what you’re doing “bracketing” anymore, but you can darn well call it useful.

One last thing: exercise three showed examples of licks that started with brackets. I wrote them this way in order to help you quickly connect the first two exercises to actual musical ideas. However, brackets can and should be used within lines as well, not just at their beginning.

That’s all for now. I’ve given you plenty to chew on. Now it’s time for me to go and eat.

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