How do I learn to improvise music?

Improvising music is like giving a speech off the cuff. Before you can do it, you need to know some vocabulary and grammar. In music, the vocabulary is riffs, phrases, scales, sequences and other melodic building blocks. The grammar is music theory. It’s not necessary to learn either one formally, you can figure them out on your own through trial and error. But a good teacher can make the process a lot easier.

You can build up your vocabulary by studying other people’s improvisation, especially by transcribing from recordings. Working out melodies by ear is another good way to build vocabulary — as you stumble around and try to determine which note comes next, you’re doing a lot of experiential learning.

Music theory is the improviser’s best friend. Knowing the relationship between scales and chords frees your imagination, opening up new musical areas for you to explore. When you’re up on stage playing a solo, it’s not like you’re explicitly thinking “okay, a D7 chord is coming up, so I need to play mixolydian.” But having that knowledge thoroughly mastered means that when you get on stage you’ll have a bunch of notes under your fingers that you know will sound good. It’s up to you whether you want to stay in safe territory or venture out into crazier sounds, but it helps to know where the safe territory is.

Original post on Quora

4 thoughts on “How do I learn to improvise music?

  1. I like the comment – music theory is improviser’s best friend. Indeed, knowing music theory will help one become better at improvising. Sometimes, one may find music theory a bit difficult to be applied on real word piano playing. It’s like someone who has great collection of paints but do not know how or where to start off.

    Starting with a few notes or basic chord progression can give beginners great starting point.

  2. Keep in mind (and spread the word!) that a jazz style is not the only option for improvisation. Jazz is great, but confining the definition of improvisation to jazz is going to leave out about 93% of traditionally trained players, who either don’t play a jazz instrument or aren’t interested in working on jazz or both. How about this: improvisation means you choose the note. You don’t have to improvise over chord progressions – that is just one option. Better to start on one note – just making up interesting rhythms. When that becomes somewhat familiar and comfortable, then add a limited number of notes. And start playing improv duets with a partner. Listen, and respond (echo, imitate, accompany) – have a conversation. Steal a lot from the other. Don’t worry about chord progressions for a while. Just have fun interacting. Tell a story: beginning, middle, end. Balance unity (predictable) and variety (surprises). Make up all kinds of things: Fanfare. Sarabande. Dirge. Children’s song. Do a self-portrait of how you feel today. Pick an adjective and an animal and depict that in music. Add a third player on percussion (body percussion, found percussion, anything). Switch to voices. Add movement. Turn out the lights for a while. Use improv to add imagination and variety to your warm up and/or to technical problems you’re working on. There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you add improv to your playing – and you’ll have a great time doing it (I know, music is serious and you’re not supposed to have fun. Well, I give you permission! I won’t tell anyone.). If you want more information of this sort, you might check out my book some time: Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians (GIA Publications/www.giamusic.com), which 500+ improv games plus a lot of explanatory material and resources for further study. It came from the first five years of a semester course I teach at the University of Iowa. But book or no book – if you don’t yet improvise, start now. Today. Pick a note. Listen. It will suggest another note. Follow it and see where it goes. Find out what this other half of musicianship and musical life is all about. You will wonder how you ever did without it.

    Jeffrey Agrell

  3. Like with a lot of things, it depends on how good the teacher is, whether that teacher is a book, classroom, private lessons, or a mentor.

    In music and especially jazz improv, your progress can be stunted by poor teaching methods. There is a lot of “vague” instruction that is near-worthless, in my opinion. It behooves you to take time to identify quality instructors.

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