Improvising with Octave Unisons


in Composition, Methods

So I was exploring some methods the other day and ran across a technique for improving that we all know about. It’s playing the melody in octave unison. However, there’s a bit more to it than that.

For piano players this is playing the same notes with both hands and octave or a double octave apart. Other others it may be two players playing that melody an octave or two apart. This soloing approach was a used by Jazz great Oscar Peterson and others.

This brought a flash back to middle school when I first explored playing piano. I was so proud that I had played a C major chord going up and a D minor chord coming down using both hands. I had a nice little triplet rhythm going with it. I thought it sounded so cool.

Only problem was it lasted all of about 20 seconds and then I didn’t know what to do next, but hey, I was 12 years old and never played before. Little did I know that this was an improvisation style.

Now that I’ve learned a great deal about music theory and music flow, I’m sure I could revisit this first composition attempt and expand on it.

What to Do With the Octave Unison

Of course using the octave unison approach threw out a song may become a little more than one can bear to play or listen to for any length of time. However, effective use of short passages may be a nice little kick to your composition or interpretation of a tune.

You may find that a short passage which relies solely or mostly on the melody might provide a good point to use the octave approach.

This example in Eb shows the base line as whole note intervals for each measure and using octave unison to play chord notes in a broken pattern.

octave unsion melody

Listen Here:

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Now that we have the concept of the first idea you can apply that to any piece of music you are studying right now. Let’s take it a step further

Punctuating or Accenting with Unison Chords

One way to give this octave melody line some extra meaning is to add some type of accent to it. I mean use something to break the flow with great emphasis.

The following example uses the idea of staccato chords to using this approach.


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As you study this example consider that there may be several variations you might want to try. I used a chord inversion on accent beats. You may want to try using a unison in one measure and exploring a fifth or third higher to add the chord harmonies.

Now you have seen a simple idea to improvise or compose your tune. Go try it out. Use scale tones and chord tones to create your melody, and then add in some short, quick chord punctuation to augment your creation.  Experiment with other notions, this is also a great learning tool.

Reference lessons:

Intervals page and Notes Workshop

Scales page or Scale and Key Workshop

Chords page or Creating Chords Workshop

Bob Reno October 23, 2010 at 10:57 pm

I love the sound of melodies on the piano 2 or 3 octaves apart. Of course it’s difficult to do much else, but it works well if you do it when you have an ensemble to accompany you.

Brad_C November 6, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Bob, I was experimenting with the Toccata in D minor where you can do just that. Just getting ready for Halloween.

mevian November 12, 2010 at 4:35 am

Hi, I want to know if two or more notes (eight or sixteen notes) are connected by a beam do you play that notes together at once ore do you play it idividualy?

Brad_C November 12, 2010 at 10:18 pm

There is a difference between stack and connected. Stacked notes those on top of each other are played together. Connected are played in rhythm or time based on there time value. See more at:

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