How to improvise music

Improvising is the art of making up music on the spot, without relying on sheet music or a memorized tune. It may sound hard but actually it is pretty easy.

The hardest part of improvising is allowing yourself to mess up. You must give yourself the freedom to play anything, no matter how awful.

Let’s face it: your first improvisations won’t be any good. But they’ll never become any better if you don’t allow yourself to be bad at it.

If you already know how to play by ear, you have a headstart because playing by ear and improvising are in essense the same thing. Improvisation is just a little scarier because you don’t have the safety net of an existing tune.

The chords

There are several approaches to improvising:

You can play a new melody on top of an existing chord progression. That is what jazz players do: the rest of the band lays down a fixed harmonic structure and the soloist plays something on top of that.

If you’re doing this on solo piano, your left hand can bang out the same chords over and over while your right hand makes up a melody.

You can also drop the idea of a fixed chord structure and make up the harmony as you go along. Of course that is a little harder, because now you have to think of two things: the melody and the chords.

In reality the amount of possible variation in harmony is a lot smaller than in melody, so it’s not as difficult as it sounds.

It’s possible to harmonize a lot of music with just three chords (the I, IV and V chords) so if you restrict your left hand to these three chords, the number of possible chord changes is very limited.

Keeping it simple as a very good idea for the beginning improviser. :-)

The melody

Suppose you know the chord progression beforehand, then how do you come up with a melody that fits with those chords?

There are three methods:

1. Play chord tones. Melodies consist of chord tones. That means if the current chord is C chord, then a melody consisting of the tones C, E or G will always sound good because C, E and G are the tones that make up C chord.

When you change chords, you choose the chord tones from the new chord, and so on.

If you are looking for a more advanced sound, you can also use extended chord tones such as the 7th and the 9th, or color tones such as the 6th.

Of course you can still play other tones that are not in the chord, but you should limit them to quick passing tones.

For example, if you play a long F melody tone on op of a C chord, you’ll probably annoy your listeners. :-) Playing a quick F is fine as long as you immediately resolve it to a true chord tone.

2. Play scale tones. If you’re playing in the key of C, then you can pick your melody tone from the C major scale. If you want to be fancy, you can also choose a different scale such as the blues scale or one of the “modes”. But I won’t go into that here.

3. Play intuitively. This is my favorite method. I don’t like to think too much while I’m improvising. Instead, I try to hear the melody in my head just fractions of a second before I’m going to hit the key on the piano.

Playing intuitively

This is easier than it sounds: if you’re in the right state of mind, melodies will automatically (or should that be “magically”?) come to you. They do to me, anyway.

Does that make me weird? I don’t think so. I believe anyone can do this, but you have to silence the other “chatter” in your head first.

To practice this, play a fixed chord progression (for example C-Am-Dm-G7) over and over and try to sing, hum or whistle a melody along with it. Don’t think too hard about it, just sing anything.

If you can do that, you can improvise!

If you have a melody that you like, try and pick it out on the piano. If you keep practicing this — singing first, then picking it out on the piano — then after a short while you’ll be able to pick out the melody on the piano while you’re singing it.

Scatting along while you’re improvising is a great way to train your ears!

Remember: don’t think about it too much. Thinking is a rational process that happens in one part of the brain, while creativity is a completely different process that happens in another part of the brain.

If you’re thinking too hard, there is no room left to be creative. The best creations happen in a mind that is completely still, and with a heart that is overflowing.

Tips

If you have trouble making up a melody of your own, then pick an existing melody. As it happens, the chord progression C-Am-Dm-G7 is used for a whole lot of songs, for example “Blue Moon” or “Heart and Soul” and many others.

Sing or hum one of those melodies while you’re playing the chords, and then add in your own variations. Before you know it, you’ll be singing — and playing — a whole new melody.

Another tip for making up melodies: download lyrics to a song that you don’t know. Just google for “song lyrics” and you’ll find many websites with tons of lyrics. Then try to make up your own melody to these lyrics.

The easiest way is to simply recite the text. You’ll find that automatically you’ll put some kind of rhythm into it, even if you don’t know how the original song goes.

You could also do this with poetry, of course — or really with any kind of text as this Elton John video shows. :-)

Take it slow. The faster you play, the less time you have to think about what you’re going to do next. You’ll learn quicker if you play slower.

An example

Above all, keep it simple! I already mentioned the chord progression C-Am-Dm-G7, which is only four chords. But you can simplify it even more. How about just playing C-G-C-G over and over?

Here is a little improvisation that I did using just these two chords. I kept it very simple: just three-note chords in the left hand and one-finger melody in the right.

Short improvisation example using only C and G chords (MIDI) (Help?)

Like I said in the beginning, it doesn’t really matter if this improvisation is good or not. But it is mine and I made it up on the spot.

If you learn to play from the heart, then your improvisations will be the ultimate way to creatively express yourself musically. Few things are more fulfilling!

Read more articles on Piano Clues:

Basic Theory


Chords and Harmony


The Circle of Fifths


Arrangement, Improvisation and Composition


Reading Music and Sheet Music


How to Record Piano


Software and Virtual Instruments


Scales and Exercises


Digital Pianos


Links and Other Stuff


Comments

  1. Pingback: who said anything more than three chords is jazz

  2. Maria says:

    First of all I would like to thank you for this site. I find your tips very helpful. And what I like the most is that you don’t make nonsense of music language, don’t “mystify” it with all that specific musical “abracadabra”. Your explanations are truly clear and understandable for beginner and autodidact like me.
    Soon after I’d started my piano studies (well, as soon as my hands got used to the instrument) I threw away all classical manuals, which seemed quite boring and little helpful for what I wanted to do, and tried improvising. Little by little I learned to express myself in simple melodies. But I did it intuitively, without any theoretical base and understanding of harmony, chords, etc., just “by ear”.
    Piano Clues helped me to step forward in understanding music and improvising. That’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.
    I would like to share some of your articles with my friends. May I translate them into Russian and publish in my blog? I’m not willing to commercialize it somehow, and of course I’ll put any required copyright notice and link to your site. I’m a copyright lawyer so I’m quite scrupulous about all that stuff :)
    Please, contact me via email for details.

  3. Great article! You have explained very well the concept of improvisation. Though I love playing classical music, I also love to play contemporary songs. But I don’t usually find a sheet music for contemporary music so I improvise.

    For beginners, I also advise the 2-chord improvisation. Play any melody using 2-chords. It’s a great start to learn improvisation.

  4. Oirsatoberu Opeyemi says:

    indeed this is a great article for beginners like me.

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