Digital Patterns
for Improvisation

  1. General
  2. Practice with Metronome
  3. Practice in Semiquavers
  4. Practice over Single Chord
  5. Practice over II-V-I segments
  6. Practice with Modulation
  7. Practice in Triplet Quavers
  8. Practice Materials

    Patterns 1234 & 1231
    Patterns 123 & 135
    Patterns 1324 & 1342

Impro Library       Lesson | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | ? ? |

Down - Top)

DG 1.1 - General

A digital pattern is a combination of 2, 3, 4 or more relative note positions (described in numbers) which is progressively repeated up or down a specific scale. For example the Pattern 1234 over the C major scale progresses upwards like this :


Practice of digital patterns over scales is enormously important for all instrumentalists, but especially for improvising musicians. The objectives are :

  1. To develop greater instrumental skills and fluency

  2. To gain a deeper knowledge of each individual scale

  3. To gain a broader appreciation of the variety of sounds contained within a scale

  4. To develop exiting sound modules for inclusion in one's improvisation

In principle any scale you learn should be subject to digitals practice. But unless you have the luxury (like I had) of unlimited practice time, it is sensible to prioritise as follows :

  1. Top Priority
    • Major scale
    • Mixolydian mode
    • Dorian mode

  2. Second Priority
    • Pentatonic scales
    • Harmonic minor scale

  3. Great when you find the time
    • 8-note dominant and 8-note diminished scales
    • Lydian dominant scale
    • Whole tone scale
    • Chromatic scale

The good news is that when you have practised digits over the major scales in all keys, you have at the same time covered all Mixolydian and Dorian modes. They use the same notes, only start on a different one.

Likewise the major and minor pentatonics cover the same notes, so do the Harmonic minor and Lydian dominant scales, and also of course the 8-note dominant and 8-note diminished scales. Therefore above list is actually not as daunting as it may look at a first glance.

Always remember that music is a skill that you develop over time. Never just focus on one thing only. Always work a little each time on a range of musical aspects and gradually it all will come together for you in the end.

How to Practise
There are of course as many digital patterns as imagination lets you think of, and by all means develop some by yourself. However I have selected six basic patterns which are simple but great both for developing good instrumental skills and to use in improvisation. They all have in common that they can create drive ("forward motion"), excitement and build up increasing tension over 2 to 3 consecutive bars.

I suggest you work on one single pattern at a time for two weeks (half a month), then go on to the next one. In just two weeks it is unlikely that you cover all routines dealt with in this lesson, but in time you will come back to it and progress further.
Once you are on top of all six patterns you can of course swap them around in your practice routines as you wish.

(Down - Up - Top)

DG 1.2 - Practice with Metronome

First practice should always be using a metronome.   There are two hugely important things you must do.

  1. Always play from memory. Do not read from written music
    It is OK to check the sheet music, or write the pattern out if you are unsure of the pattern in a particular scale. But as soon as you start playing, do not look at the music but try to get through from memory.

  2. Always play slowly, without hesitations, stumbles or errors
    If you can not do this, switch back to a slower metronome tempo until you can, and only speed up the tempo when you can flawlessly play the pattern over the entire prescribed range. By ignoring this and stumbling on, you are learning absolutely nothing !!

Here is the notation for Pattern 1234 over the C major scale. Try to play over a range of at least 2 octaves on your instrument if you can.

Audio 1.1

Correct fingerings
When playing digital patterns always make sure to practise using the appropriate fingerings, suitable for high speed executions.

For keyboard in general use the same fingering for a specific digital pattern throughout, regardless of the positions of the black keys. This works best in most cases with only a few rare exceptions.
Use fingers 1 2 3 4 for the present pattern.

For saxophone use the keys you use for the proper playing of scales at high speed. This means for example.

  • When a C is next to a B : use the side key C
  • When a C is not next to a B : use the middle finger C

  • When a Bb is next to a C : use the side key Bb
  • When a Bb is not next to a C : use the biskey Bb

  • When an F# is next to an F : use the side key F#
  • When an F# is not next to an F : use the low E or D key

Other instruments should follow similar correct fingering rules as specified in a text book or by your instrumental teacher.

Here is the notation for Pattern 1234 over the C Mixolydian mode. Note the key signature !

Audio 1.2

Here is the notation for Pattern 1234 over the C Dorian mode. Note the key signature !

Audio 1.3

(Down - Up - Top)

DG 1.3 - Practice in Semiquavers (sixteenth notes)

Once you are comfortable in playing a pattern in quavers (eighth notes : 2 notes to each beat), gradually increase the metronome tempo. Then start practising the same pattern but in semiquavers (sixteenth notes : 4 notes to each beat).
Here is an example of the C Mixolydian mode played in semiquavers.

Audio 1.4

Be meticulous with your timing, and record yourself occasionally (while playing with the metronome) to check on how you are doing.

When using a digital pattern in Jazz improvisation remember that in swing style the quavers should be swing quavers. The semiquavers however always remain straight.

(Down - Up - Top)

DG 1.4 - Practice over a Single Chord

The next step is to get comfortable playing patterns in a real musical setting. And with this your objective is changing, moving further ahead.

  • While practising with a metronome your objective is to develop greater technical facility and fluency on your instrument.
    Therefore every single scale you work on should include practice of digital patterns.

  • However when you start practising with a musical backing track your objective is to develop the facility to incorporate digital patterns in your improvisation.
    In this case you work in first instance on those scales you are most frequently going to select for this purpose.
In other words, when improvising you are (hopefully) in complete control of what you want to do and when. It is therefore unlikely that you (at least initially) will choose to run a pattern through a scale with 5 flats or 5 sharps. More likely you will find a chance to do that over a relatively easy chord (in the song you are working on), requiring a scale pattern with only 1, 2 or at the most 3 flats or sharps. Therefore focus at least initially on the easier scales.

Here is pattern 1234 over the C Mixolydian mode, played in semiquavers over a single C7 chord backing track.

Audio 1.5

Practice starting on different chord tones, both going up and down, and listen to the musical effect it produces.

On the single chord backing tracks in the Play-along Library, each track contains two single chords, a perfect 5th apart. First one chord is played for 8 bars, then the next one (a 5th down) for 8 bars, then back to the first one again. And so on.

(Down - Up - Top)

DG 1.5 - Practice over II-V-I segments

When going up or down one octave in pitch we have several musical roads we can travel.

  1. Within a single beat we can jump from say a C to the next C one octave higher.

  2. Using an arpeggio (broken chord) we arrive one octave higher in half a bar.

  3. With a quaver scale run it will take one full bar to arrive one octave higher

  4. But with a 4-digit pattern in semiquavers (or a 3-digit one in triplets) it takes a full 2 bars to reach our destination.
This aspect is illustrated on the Diagram shown below.


Depending on our creative intention (or instinct) at any moment during play we can use any of these roads above. All of them of course have their merit.
However the digital pattern stands out in three distinct ways. Within a single octave range, using a digital pattern :

  1. We can play faster (more notes per beat) : creating great excitement

  2. We can sustain the run longer (2 bars +) : creating ever increasing musical tension

  3. In addition the relatively small pitch range required for digital runs is, from a practical point, especially welcome for instruments with a limited pitch range like flutes and saxophones. If gives them much greater choice of where to start and end their run.

To take full advantage of the above considerations we should look for suitable 2 bar opportunities in songs to use digital pattern runs. And where better will we find these than in the numerous IIm7 - V7 and IIm7 - V7 - IΔ segments present in virtually every song in the Jazz and Popular repertoire ?

Practice over IIm7 - V7 - IΔs in several keys is therefore an essential element of digital pattern practice.
Here is a IIm7 - V7 - IΔ in the key of C major. The pattern is in semiquavers.

Audio 1.6

Experiment with starting on different notes, especially chord tones (1, 3, 5, 7, 9) of the IIm7 chord. Then watch where it takes you to.

On the II-V-I backing tracks in the Play-along Library, each track contains two II-V-I segments, a perfect 5th apart. First a 4-bar II-V-I segment in one key is played for 4 times (16 bars total), then the next 4-bar II-V-I segment (a 5th down) plays also 4 times, then back to the first one again. And so on.

(Down - Up - Top)

DG 1.6 - Practice with Modulations

To create ever more musical interest one can select 2 bars with one chord modulating to another chord. In such case, after the first bar the underlying scale changes for the 2nd bar and hence the pattern also. In most cases it is only a difference of 1 or 2 flats (or sharps), and therefore not all that difficult, but of course you to practice this element.

You can pick any two bars in any song for this, but the embellished blues is a good example and a great way to practise on.

Audio 1.7

Once again start on different chord tones, playing patterns both up and down.

Included in the Play-along Library are embellished blues tracks in five different keys. This constitutes ample material for meaningful practice.

(Down - Up - Top)

DG 1.7 - Practice in Triplet Quavers

There is one final and most important aspect of digital pattern practice.
So far we have practised the 4-digit pattern in quavers and semiquavers. In other words the digital pattern and the rhythm used are synchronised.

But what happen when the pattern and rhythm are mismatched ?
We can achieve this by playing a 4-digit pattern in triplet quavers. Doing so suddenly produces a totally new perspective and sound scape. Instead of a regular beat on the first digit of each pattern segment, beat accents now fall in turn on all of the digits as the run progresses.

Here is pattern 1234 played in triplet quavers over the C Mixolydian mode.

Audio 1.8   Audio 1.9

First practise this new technique very slowly with the metronome. Once you can master that, start practice with the backing tracks.

Once you master all aspects presented in this lesson you have the ability to apply digital patterns in your improvisation at three different speeds.

  1. in quavers
  2. in triplet quavers
  3. in semiquavers
Depending on both your skill level and the tempo of the song you should in most cases be able to use at least two of above tempos for digitals over any song.

Down - Up - Top)

DG 1.8 - Practice Materials


Key Type Tempo Description
A & D Major chords MM=75 - MM=100   Alternating A for 8 bars, then D for 8 bars
A7 & D7 Dominant chords MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating A7 for 8 bars, then D7 for 8 bars
Am & Dm Minor chords MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating Amin for 8 bars, then Dmin for 8 bars
A & D IIm7-V7-IΔ MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating 16 bars Bm7-E7-AΔ , then 16 bars Em7-A7-DΔ

G & C Major chords MM=70 - MM=100 Alternating G for 8 bars, then C for 8 bars
G7 & C7 Dominant chords MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating G7 for 8 bars, then C7 for 8 bars
Gm & Cm Minor chords MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating Gmin for 8 bars, then Cmin for 8 bars
G & C IIm7-V7-IΔ MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating 16 bars Am7-D7-GΔ , then 16 bars Dm7-G7-CΔ

F & Bb Major chords MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating F for 8 bars, then Bb for 8 bars
F7 & Bb7 Dominant chords MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating F7 for 8 bars, then Bb7 for 8 bars
Fm & Bbm   Minor chords MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating Fmin for 8 bars, then Bbmin for 8 bars
F & Bb IIm7-V7-IΔ MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating 16 bars Gm7-C7-FΔ , then 16 bars Cm7-F7-BbΔ

Eb & Ab Major chords MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating Eb for 8 bars, then Ab for 8 bars
Eb7 & Ab7 Dominant chords MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating Eb7 for 8 bars, then Ab7 for 8 bars
Ebm & Abm   Minor chords MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating Ebmin for 8 bars, then Abmin for 8 bars
Eb & Ab IIm7-V7-IΔ MM=75 - MM=100 Alternating 16 bars Fm7-Bb7-EbΔ , then 16 bars Bbm7-Eb7-AbΔ

G Embellished Blues   MM=75 - MM=100 pals01.gif
C Embellished Blues MM=75 - MM=100
F Embellished Blues MM=75 - MM=100
Bb Embellished Blues MM=75 - MM=100
Eb Embellished Blues MM=75 - MM=100

Vertical correlation of Keys
Concert Key A D G C F Bb Eb Ab
Bb instruments B E A D G C F Bb
Eb instruments F# B E A D G C F

( Up - Top - Impro Library)

Copyright © 2007 Michael Furstner.