Octave Displacement: Application and Practice

A couple of years back, I had the chance to hang out a bit with trumpeter Brian Lynch at the Brubeck Summer Jazz Colony. Brian was generous with his time and was gracious enough to teach me about the fundamentals of bebop—much of which was missing in my playing. Of the concepts we discussed, one particular point has been on my mind more and more as of recently: the use of octave displacement in creating lines and melodic shapes, which Brian called "the pivot." 

In a bebop context, octave displacement serves a practical purpose by enabling lines to fit in the range constraints of a given instrument, e.g., saxophone or trumpet. A simple example is dropping the end of a line down an octave when nearing a note that's above an instrument's comfortable range. To illustrate, here's a generic ii-V-I line without O.D., followed by one with O.D.:

Without octave displacement

With octave displacement
From what I can remember from speaking with Brian, horn players used O.D. to adapt lines from pianists like Bud Powell to their instruments. It also gave musicians greater directional flexibility—sort of like wearing cleats and being able to switch directions, ascending or descending, in a moment's notice. O.D. is particularly noticeable on bebop heads like "Donna Lee," where there are numerous pivot points in the melody (bar 3, for instance).

Lately, I've been thinking about octave displacement in other contexts and applications after seeing an Ambrose Akinmusire masterclass online. He describes an exercise he developed to increase his technical abilities and to improve his ears, which involves the displacement of notes within a scale:

C Major Scale exercise — continues on to 6th, 7th degree, etc.
The exercise can be extended to any scale or mode, and can also be practiced with the displacement of more than one consecutive note or even in nonconsecutive notes, e.g., every other. On a basic level, this is a technical exercise that develops the facility needed to make sudden wide intervallic jumps of a 7th or more. More importantly, though, I think these exercises train the ear to hear melodic shapes that are constructed with intervals greater than the usual 2nd-6th range. 

A point Ambrose made a few years ago at Stanford that made a deep impression on me was something along the lines of this: that he heard pitches in all registers when improvising and didn't feel aurally limited to a particular octave when constructing melodies—he heard notes irrespective of octave, and his playing reflects this.

One exercise I've been practicing lately has been the displacement of the chromatic scale a note at a time, emphasizing the intervals of a minor 9th and a major 7th, depending on how you ascend or descending. Another exercise has been to take bebop heads and displace segments or fragments of the melody while maintaining the head's rhythmic integrity. 

Another way to think of single octave displacement is the inversion of a smaller interval: in this case, displacing a descending major 2nd is really the same as inverting the interval into a minor 7th. I think this approach has the advantage of making certain intervals more easily identifiable as being readily displaced—2nds and 3rds are easy to displace, while other intervals that are displaced into minor 9ths and greater are more challenging to hear and to play.

It's particularly interesting to me how a simple concept like octave displacement has developed over the years from its application in bebop to a more sophisticated and technically challenging application in the playing of contemporary musicians. I'm also aware that Eric Dolphy was already pioneering wide intervals and octave displacement in his playing before he passed away, so there has been a gradual progression in the use of O.D. over the years. Joe Henderson also uses O.D., or what I think is derived from some related approach, in his playing—check out his à capella solo on "Lush Life" from Lush Life (1992), where he plays an extended chord voicing as a self-accompaniment:

Left: played as is. Right: phrase adapted to single octave.

Also, at the end of the melody to "Isfahan," he plays the following ascending line, which can also be thought of as a melody in a single octave:

Played as is.
Adapted to a single octave.

Has anybody else been checking this out recently or have any exercises to share? 


  1. "Another exercise has been to take bebop heads and displace segments or fragments of the melody while maintaining the head's rhythmic integrity".

    that's AWESOME, can't wait to try it.

    i've been doing the ambrose exercise, but alternating every note, switching which notes on the descending side


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