Getting the Most Out of Music Books

Q: Do you think you could run through / give some examples of how to make use of rhythm books like Modern Reading Text In 4/4, and theory books like Jazz Theory by Mark Levine or Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns by Nicolas Slominsky?

A: Nice selection of books! Generally speaking, my approach is to combine any rhythm exercises with melodic exercises that I am already familiar with (but not necessarily SUPER comfortable with) and vice-versa. In a nutshell, my approach is to start at easiest level of something and work my way up. This helps to keep me from skipping over anything. As I continually up the ante, I am looking for that place where I am no longer in my comfort zone and I start to make mistakes. This is the place where I will start to really take my time and explore something in full. Once I have evolved my comfort level, I will try and up the ante once again. Rinse, repeat, ad infinitum.

With a book like Modern Reading Text in 4/4, I’d recommend the following:

  1. Simply play the rhythms by using just one note or a muted note with a metronome (accent on 1 to ensure you don’t drop any beats).
  2. Then I might try and create bass lines using those rhythms.
  3. The final step (for me) would be to superimpose the changes to a tune over the page and comp chords over changes using those rhythms.

You might also want to run through chord shapes in any and all inversions, utilizing voice-leading and incorporating extensions.

The Jazz Theory Book is actually one which I simply read. I don’t get as much out of reading musical examples and excerpts as I do exploring a concept in my head and then exploring it on the fretboard. I also read this book to tighten up any loose screws in my chord scale approaches. It’s a great reference, as well. If I have a question about any given scale, chord or concept, it will likely be found in the glossary and I can jump right to it. I also bought the digital version of this book and keep it on my iPad.

With The Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, my tendency has been to simply play through examples (either in order or at random, it really doesn’t matter here) until something perks my ear. Once I hear a pattern that I like, I explore it fully.

Here are a couple of things you might consider with Thesaurus:

  1. Notate the pattern on paper and make a list of chord types it could fit within or approximate
  2. Make a loop of a chord type and practice trying to utilize the pattern in some way
  3. Pay attention to chord types that you are less comfortable. If you can play over the major modes for days, try some “Alt” or diminished ideas.

That’s really the process I recommend for just about anything in this area: try to explore all relationships and always tie rhythmic ideas to harmonic ideas in order to develop and explore the context of a rhythm or melodic idea. For me, that means I to make music with everything I work on, otherwise it comes out sounding like an exercise or pattern.

I created an example for you to try and use as a guide for other exercises (download the PDF here). It’s the first four bars of a voice-leading exercise from my book, The Improvisor’s Path combined with the first four bars of rhythm from page 21 of Modern Reading Text. The example from my book is just half-notes.

This is a perfect example of how you can take something that you’ve already worked on and apply it in new ways, creating new practice material.

Editor’s Note: Here are links to the books mentioned in this column:

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Share your thoughts

  1. me gustaria mucho saber si existen estos libros en español, gracias!!

  2. if I’m not mistaken, this is a question from an email I sent out a while back. It really came from my feeling limited when it came to improvising. From my experience as a decent drummer for 10 years, and from spending time on bass for the last 4, I find that I’m all right at improvising. For example, I took a solo with my jazz group on “Cariba” by Wes Montgomery, and it went all right. The rhythms I used kept a latin-ish feel, I stayed within the changes, all the core stuff went well (which in itself was huge for me). But I still feel like I’m hitting a wall of some kind when it comes to a. Reading more syncopated rhythms at speed, b. Playing longer rhythmic phrases that fit together to form a greater whole, and c. Switching between different feels while practicing (say, from 8th notes, to 16ths, to quarter note triplets, to 8th note triplets). Oh well, back to the shed I go

  3. I also cheated a bit with the books I asked about; they’re all books you recommended when I took a lesson with you last summer : )