Musical Improvisation

I began improvising shortly after I started playing music at age 11. Musical improvisation is a wonderful skill that opens many doors, and a skill that I'm happy to teach. It's always remarkable to see what young children can do when introduced to improvisation. It's always a fun and exciting exploration.

I was naturally curious about music and eager to explore, and I had a brother who would improvise at the piano, so I knew it was humanly possible. I began playing a series of notes, finding notes that blended well with recordings. Later I came to find that I had discovered the major pentatonic and relative blues scales, well known scales that work well in blues, swing, jazz, rock and country music.

Many of my adult students are accomplished musicians, who learned a singnificant level of skill and mastery from their instructors. But many say, they learned nothing about musical creativity. Above all they wish they had learned improvisation ... because without it they are unable to spontaneously join in at musical gatherings, and contribute without written music. And it's frustrating for some when they see budding musicians, with far less skill, improvising without hesitation.

Fortnunately it's never too late to learn. I teach simple, systematic steps that guide you as you explore improvisation. And you do not need to first aquire lots of arcane music theory; a vast understanding is no a prerequisite.

Here's where I'd encourage you to start:

  • practice steady rhythm
  • learn a scale (preferably one and a half to two octaves)
  • practice swithcing directions on the scale
  • find a piece of music that's based on this scale
  • get in sync with the rhythm (with attention to straight vs. swing)
  • start in switching direction.

Simple as that. You can accomplish a surprising amount with just these skills, and the results will make you want to learn the next challenge.


In a phrase, improvisation is the art of spontaneous composition.

The term "improvisation" practically contains the word "improve." And indeed it will dramatically improve your musicianship overall. It's an extremely useful skill. And it's great fun!

Definitions ––––––––––––––––––


  1. to make, invent, or arrange offhand.
  2. to fabricate out of what is readily available.
  3. to successfully use a tool or object for something other than it's intended purpose or it's common usage.


In the field of music, improvisation is largely extemporaneous.

When improvising, a musician may call on and express existing ideas, such as scales, arpeggios, riffs, and licks. But usually these ideas are used in new ways or applied to new places. Entirely new ideas may come as well. Whatever the case, it's never the same twice.

That's improvisation! It's the ability to participate and contribute to a music session without use of written music and without playing a prepared or memorized part.

Here are some types of improvisation:

  • playing a solo on the fly — whether it's a piece you've heard before or not.
  • spontaneously fashioning an accompaniment with just knowledge of the sequence of chords.
  • weaving a counter-melody that adds color to the background and helps frame the melody.

There are ample rewards for those who pursue this branch of music and this particular brand of creativity.

When you learn to improvise you become acquainted with the most essential aspects music — the very nature of the art. And improvisation naturally leads to formal composition, to song writing, and writing musical scores.

Good improvisational skills promote confidence in performance. A performer who knows improvisation is like a trapease artist with a net below. If the performer falls from the melody, they land in the net of improvisation, until they find their way back on track. It's comforting to know that you can use improvisation cover mistakes and memory lapses. And mistakes and memory lapses are less likely to occur when artists are comfortable.

It's far more common that you may think

Improvisation is the origin of much music. Most of the music performed each day contains improvisation.

Presently classical music has the least amount of improvisation. All parts are written out, and specified in detail. There's room for some interpretation, particularly in expression, but true improvisation in classical music is rare.

But in almost all other styles, musicians regularly improvise. In Jazz, blues, swing, rock and roll, country, folk music, gypsy music, improvisation plays a large roll

In an average recording session there is a great deal of improvisation. Studio musicians often show up at recording prepared and ready to improvise, but with only a general idea of what they are to perform. During a few trial runs, a producer will say, "We want more of that!" or "This won't work. Leave that stuff out," or "Try something else." This direction guides the musicians to create a rough version of the finished product. Then they record.

Jazz musicians sometimes take the extent of improvisation to extremes. Nothing is decided in advance. No key, no rhythm, no duration. One or more musicians start — the others listen and contribute based on what they hear.

Sometimes a jazz improvisation will have but an agreed upon theme — for instance, ships on the water in a storm. The musicians play to create the feel of such a scene.

How come everyone doesn't improvise

Though it's relatively easy to explore improvisation, improvisational skills are not widely taught.

There are many fine, well-schooled musicians who've developed a thorough mastery of their instrument, yet who pale at the idea of improvisation. No doubt, their lack of confidence, skill or interest exists only because they haven't been introduced to improvisation, because they didn't have a good introduction, or they had no need or motivation to develop such skills. Orchestrations and arrangements for musical ensembles usually little or no improvisation. Each note is written out, and there is no deviation from the score. As there is no need for improvisation, the skill aren't taught.

On the other hand, countless inventive, self taught, free-minded individuals have learned improvisation on their own — and some have achieved an extraordinary degree of expertise — without training and or knowledge of music theory. Indeed, much can be accomplished intuitively.

Getting started

From a distance, improvisation may seem magical and unattainable, but there are many paths that make improvisation easily accessible.

Most people need some guidance in get started with improvisation.

A supportive environment is extremely helpful. It should be a place where techniques and goals are introduced intelligently, step-by-step, so success occurs at every level. A place where mistakes are welcome — partly because mistakes often serve as improvisational fuel and inspiration, and because improvisation cannot be learned without mistakes.

Kids are great at it because they're unihibited. But it's never too late to learn!

What does it take?

Just learn and practice a scale or two. Once you can play a scale fluently, forward and back, practice it along with recordings that are in the same key. Then try switching directions in the scale, at unplanned points.

In many cases, you can play one scale thoughout an entire song. With a simple "scalar" approach you can accomplish a tremendous amount. You'll make great sounds, and develop a knack for experimentation, and the ability listen to respond.

You'll come to understand that forethought, planning and knowledge aren't the only way to proceed. When improvising really get to "play" with music. And there's lots of surprises. Throw some notes into the mix and hear how they sound.

Some coaching can be quite helpful in choosing the correct scale for a particular song. The most useful scales to learn are the major scale (that's Do Re, Mi), blues scale, the pentatonic scale. There's the minor scale and the relative minor scale (sometimes called the pentatonic b3 scale), which are actually the blues scale and major scales in disguise.

Later you'll learn how to "play the chords," using arpeggios and passing tones as well.


A less spontaneous form of improvisation is the art of arranging music. When arranging, a musician plans and evaluates the structures involved. The music is played and resculped to create a final result. Sometimes this means the music is again fixed, and not further improvisation is intended.

Some types of arranging encorporate more improvisation. For instance, jazz musicians will arrange a chordal accompaniment, specifying only what type of chord, not spelling out the exact notes or voicings. The preformer is free to come up with any voicing that fulfills the definition. And the results will vary dramatically.

On your own

Once you get started with "scalar" improvisation, you may ignite a curiosity and pleaure that will move you to explore other aspects of this art.

Ultimately, no matter what attempts to explain or document it, improvisation will always have an element of mystery. That's part of the fun. It's a thoroughly enriching experience.

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