Improvising Your Own Part With MIDI Music

Perhaps the most enjoyably use of the KeyMusician-Keyboard, is playing your own part along with the music of others.

In this mode, you don't try to play any existing part of the piece. You pick an unused channel, and make up music that sounds good along with the other music playing. This kind of performance is called improvisation, and is a process well-known to jazz musicians.

But it doesn't have to sound like jazz – it can sound any way you want it to.

Starting out, you might choose notes in the lower-range (the Bass clef), 'feeling-out' the harmony, and the notes the piece likes to linger on.

At times you might echo, or play-along with the main tune, or perhaps play a tune in-harmony (higher, lower, but not the same notes) with the tune.

You might remain silent for awhile, then come in with a tune of your own, adding to the piece as a whole.

You may stumble over some notes you don't like (that don't go with the other music), but you quickly move on to better notes, all without stopping. With improvisation, you go with whatever you play, finding a way to either make it work, or move on to something that does work. There is no stopping.

When I improvised along with my brother's rock-band, I would start out the piece playing in-obtrusive notes, getting a feel for what key-signature the piece was in, but on figuring it out, I would play more confidently, and louder, feeling more free to experiment.

A very useful thing the software can do for you here, is to figure out the key-signature for you. You just have one of the parts (preferably a part with multiple notes at the same time) displayed as the player plays it, and watch the “Input Key-Sig's” drop-box (of the Learning Metrics dialog box), looking for key-signatures that remain in-effect for a long period of time.

Then you set up your performance pane with that key-signature, and the task of improvising just got a whole lot easier, because now all you have to do is play notes of the scale (all white keys), and you don't have to worry about which notes need to be black-keys.

This makes it easier to concentrate on your creativity, and easier to enter “The Zone”, where things just seem to work effortlessly.

Even when you're trying to echo the tune, you may find (as I do) that it's easier to just play it by ear, than by trying to read the notes.

In the MIDI Player dialog-box, specify an actual MIDI device (not just the note-display). But in this case, you can use the same device as the keyboard uses, because you will be using a different (unused by the piece) MIDI channel of that device, therefore no notes will 'collide'.

In the player, click (select) the “Browse” button, and browse (in your home directory) to the “KeyMusician-Keyboard” sub-folder, to its “Tutorials” sub-folder, to its “KMK-Exercises” sub-folder.

To start out learning to improvise, specify (in the MIDI File drop-box) the “40-Waltz.mid” value.

First Exercise: Your First Waltz

For your first exercise, we start out with something simple.

Most people know what a waltz sounds like, which helps. For this exercise, we have provided a simple version of a waltz (using the “88-Fantasia” voice), to which you will add your own tune, using some other instrument (so you don't get confused between what the player is playing, and what you are playing).

To start out, just click (select) the “Play” button of the player (assuming “40-Waltz.mid” was selected a few paragraphs back), and listen to the piece.

It's pretty ordinary – nothing special, but what you will add to it, will make it special. That's why we refer to it as “Your First Waltz”.

It repeats the same musical phrases over and over again, but notice that near the end, it changes somewhat. So when you hear it change, that's your signal to come up with an ending for your piece.

Since this piece uses MIDI channel 3 for what it plays, and the configurations supplied, use MIDI channel 1 for the melody, and channel 2 for the chords, what you play shouldn't interfere with what the player is playing.

If you're using one of the configuration files supplied, you can choose any performance pane except F9 (which uses the same sound as what the player is using).

If you're having trouble deciding, try F6, which is (originally) the Oboe sound. With an Oboe sound, you'll want to use the row above the home row (the keys to the right of the Tab key), since the oboe is a treble-clef instrument. You could use other rows of the keyboard, but if you do, it won't sound like an oboe.

Click (select) the “Play” button of the player, and start playing notes in the KeyMusician Keyboard window – perhaps timidly at first, but you'll get the hang of it.

Remember you're not trying to play the same thing played by the player, but rather, something that sounds good when played along with it.

As you stumble upon things you really like, notice what you did, and try to do it again.

Where you've probably never tried doing this before, repeat the exercise over and over again. Each time through, you will discover something new, as well as combinations you didn't like. But that's fine too. You learn by doing, and this is your first time playing music by improvising.

How do you know if the music you play is good, or bad? Easy – if you like it, it's good. If you don't like it, it's bad. Try to remember the things you tried that you liked, and avoid doing the things that you didn't like.

Let yourself go – try a lot of things. Forget that stern “Don't pound on that piano!” voice from your past. Just play things and see what you like. The more relaxed you are in experimenting, the better you will do.

This is not anything like a math problem. It's more like a “playing on the swing-set” type of activity. It's fun, and you learn by doing.

As you get better at doing the things you discovered that you like (and avoiding the things you don't like), you will find that you can play through the whole piece, and it will sound consistently good (though probably not perfect).

Improvising music is not like a polished performance from memorized sheet-music. It will rarely be perfect, but as your skill at improvisation increases, the not-so-good things tried will become more rare. When you become good at it, people will want to hear your never-quite-the-same renditions, because they like the creativity you demonstrate, and know they won't be disappointed.

When you get good at it, show it off to somebody. It is, after all, your first waltz!

Second Exercise: Pachelbel Canon in D

For your next journey into the world of musical improvisation, specify the “41-Pachelbel-Canon-2#.mid” file. This is Pachelbel's famous “Canon in D” piece.

When you load it, the “Channels” text-box will indicate that the piece uses MIDI channels 1, through 8. So we will want to use any channel from 9 through 16 (to avoid 'colliding' with notes the player plays).

But first, let's determine the key-signature. To do this, press F2 (or click on the “F2” tab) of the main keyboard window, or any other melody-pane. We choose a melody-pane because they all use MIDI channel 1, which the piece played uses.

Then click (select) the “Play” button of the player, and you should see notes displayed in red in the performance pane. Notice that the “Input Key-Sig's” drop-box shows “0. Transpose=2 (2-#)”, and it stays displayed for a long time. This is the key-signature we will need to use. Click (select) the “Stop” button of the player.

In the KeyMusician Keyboard window, press F7 (or click on the F7 tab), (which (if you haven't changed it) is a human voice sound). Then click (select) the up-arrow of the “MIDI Channel” spin-control until it displays a value of 9, then click (or press Shift-Enter) the “Save” button.

Next, click (or tab-to and press the Down-Arrow key) the Transpose button, and choose (in the “Major Key-Name” drop-box), the value “+2 = D Major”. When you specify the Transposition, it clicks the “Save” button for you.

If you haven't changed it, the “Instrument” drop-box should show some sort of synthesized human-voice sound, such as “52-Aah Choir”, or “54-Synth Voice”. If something else is selected, change it to either of those. You also want the “VELOCITY” and “VOLUME” sliders all the way to the right. Click the “Save button” to save it in-memory.

Click the “Play” button of the player, and start playing notes in the KeyMusician Keyboard window – perhaps timidly at first, but you'll get the hang of it.

Remember you're not trying to play the same thing played by the player, but rather, something that sounds good when played along with it.

As you stumble upon things you really like, notice what you did, and try to do it again.

You probably want to play the piece through several times, playing along with it. It may very well surprise you how fun, and easy this is.

Now, let's try something different. When we started this exercise, I insisted on a particular instrument sound above. But what instrument would you like to try? Click on the “Instrument” drop-box, and choose one.

It may seem strange, but this ancient piece of music from the Baroque period, actually sounds good with a wailing, distortion-guitar (if you perhaps turn the volume down a bit).

Try different instruments, seeing what you like best. There are a lot of instruments to try.

Other Exercises In Musical Improvisation

If you enjoyed the two prior exercises, try the same thing with the following files of the “KMK-Exercises” folder:

All of these use a key-signature of no flats or sharps, so the transpose button should be set to “0 (none)”. In addition to this, all of these pieces leave MIDI channels 1, and 2 for you to use. So set your MIDI channel to 1, and you can use the chords (numeric keypad) if you choose to do so, since it uses MIDI channel 2.

Exercises 42 through 46 are compositions of mine, which I have recorded. 47 is an improvisational performance I did of the English folk-song “Scarborough Fair”. All of them were played through from beginning to end, making up the music as I played it, and were recorded in a single 'take'.

Though I hold the copyright on these pieces, you are welcome to improvise your own music along with it, and the piece you come up with (adding your own part) is yours to record and distribute, as long as my name is listed as one of the creators of the piece.

Pieces 43 through 47 have some interesting aspects, in their creation and their sound.

In these pieces, though I used the FluidR3_GM.sf2 (General-MIDI) soundfont, I make use of what I call “composite voices”.

When I perform using a composite voice, the same MIDI signals are sent to two different MIDI tracks. One of them is the primary instrument sound (piano, guitar), and the other is set at a low volume (43), using in this case, the “93-Metal Pad” voice. This provides a soft, resonant sound along with the more crisp sound of the piano, electric piano, or guitar.

The Metal Pad sound gets muddled, because of sustain-pedal use appropriate for the piano-type sound, but at its low volume, it isn't a problem, and adds a warm resonance to the overall sound. In more recent times, I have been placing a MIDI filter on the secondary voice, filtering-out the sustain pedal signals, which avoids the sound being 'muddled'.

The other interesting thing about these pieces, is I have two keyboards, I play oboe on the mini-keyboard (mounted on the larger keyboard) at times with my right-hand fingers, with my thumb reaching below to the main keyboard, playing accented, contrasting notes. It's all part of the total improvisation.

For more practice, you can also play-along with the following pieces which you used in the tutorial on learning to play music from MIDI files:

Note that the key-signature (transpose) of exercise 31 is “0 (none)”, and you need to use MIDI channel 1. The key-signature (transpose) of exercise 30 is “-5 = 1-sharp”, and you can use channels 3 through 16.

So now, having done all this, you're ready to take on the world of downloaded MIDI music, going wherever your musical tastes lead you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

- Aere

Back to Index