Group Improvisation With Different Instruments

Improvisation (making up your own tunes) has always been a part of music. The famous composers of classical music, would take part in improvisation competitions, and win them.

The cadenza portion of a concerto was provided so that performers could show their skills in improvising music based on the music in the concerto. Back then, musicians were proud to show-off their improvisation skills, and the written cadenza (often in smaller music-print) was only included for performers that didn't possess such skills.

When people hear the word 'improvisation' they usually think of Jazz music. A small group of jazz musicians, usually a trio (3 players) or a quartet (4 players), will improvise music together, and though the pieces they play will be recognizable, every performance they give will not be the same, because of their improvisation.

Such jazz players have spent a lot of time, and effort, learning to recognize the harmony (chord) currently in-use, and knowing what accidentals (notes not a part of the key-signature) go with that harmony.

Since improvisation is an easy, and natural way to become a musician, there ought to be a way to do it that doesn't require the extensive ear-training of an expert jazz musician.

Fortunately, there's an easy way to do it, and it works with multiple players of all kinds of different musical instruments – not just the KeyMusician Keyboard (which has features built-into it to make improvisation easy, including the Modal Chords system described below).

The way to make group improvisation easy – even on traditional musical instruments, is to stick to chords that don't require accidentals (notes not in the key-signature).

You might think this would be an extremely drastic restriction, but a whole lot of music abides by this restriction.

For example the following pieces in the KMK Songbook use only chords that fit within their key-signature:

  1. Bugle-Call: Taps

  2. Eine Kline Nacht Musik - Mozart

  3. Gymnopedes - Satie

  4. Improv. for the KeyMusician Keyboard

  5. Loch Lomond

  6. O Come O Come Immanuel

  7. Ode To Joy - Beethoven

  8. On-Trail

  9. Pensive Moments

  10. Scandanavian Yule Song

  11. Shenandoah

  12. The Great Gate Of Kiev - Mussorgsky

  13. Theme from "Pavane For A Dead Princess" - Ravel

  14. Theme from Morning Mood - Grieg

  15. Theme from Nessun Dorma - Puccini

  16. Theme from Symphony #1, 4th Movement - Brahms

  17. Theme from The New World Symphony - Dvorak

  18. William Tell Overture – Rossini

This list is from a lot of sources, but it is only scratching the surface.

Though you are probably familiar with a lot of the above pieces, do you think music without accidentals would sound very good?

Check out the piece in the link below, where one player is providing the harmonic framework (with the Guitar/Strings sound), and the other person is improvising with it using the Flute sound, both sounds (in this case) played on the KeyMusician Keyboard, but it could be done on an actual Flute and Guitar.

In this piece, there are no accidentals required, so the person improvising with the Flute only needs to play notes of the key-signature (the key of C-major in this case).

Guitar/Flute Improvisation

You might think that limiting yourself to only chords that fit within the key-signature would only leave you a few chords, but that is definitely not true. The link below shows you the set of chords in the key of C-Major (and A-minor) that fit entirely within the key-signature (don't require any accidentals), and it's a whole lot of chords (35 of them):

Modal Chords for C-Major and A-Minor - PDF File

There are some important details in that file you need to be aware of. If in the chord name, you see a dash (-), it means 'flatted'. So '-9' means 'flatted 9th. Also a 7th chord is distinct from a major-7th chord, or a minor-7th chord.

In a few cases, you will see “mindim”, which is something the KeyMusician Keyboard does that is definitely non-standard. When you see it, the “min” part refers to the interval of the 7th (or 9th), and the “dim” part refers to the type of chord it is added to.

You can print the above file, if you wish, and follow along as the audio file of the link below plays.

What do these chords sound like? Click the link below to hear them. There's several seconds of silence after all the chords are played, after-which a typical chord progression using those chords is played.

Modal Chords for C-Major and A-Minor - Audio File

The simple technique of sticking to chords not requiring accidentals makes it a lot easier for players improvising melody with whatever instrument they happen to play.

Chord Transitions

If you would like some guidance on the transitions from one chord to the next, the picture below is useful for the keys of C-major and A-minor:


The blue arrows suggest transitions from one chord to another.

For key-signatures other than the key of C-major or A-minor, think of the picture above as a representation of the numeric keypad, having numbers for each chord name: 1=C, 2=Dm, 3=Em, 4=F, 5=G, 6=Am, and 7=Bdim.

The numbers represent the notes of the current key-signature (C in this case). They go from the lowest note of the key-signature's scale, to the highest distinct note of the scale.

In other key-signatures, the numbers still represent the 7 notes of the key-signature's scale, but the note-names will be different. The major, minor, and diminished indication, will stay the same.

Who Plays What

It makes sense to take advantage of the strong-points of each instrument in your group.

If you have Guitarists in your improvisation group, it generally makes sense for them to provide the harmonic framework people improvise along with, since Guitarists can do wonderfully expressive, rhythmic strumming. Where finger-picking melody is an advanced Guitar technique, having them improvise melody might be difficult, but if they can do it, why not?

With improvisation, success is more likely if the group of musicians improvising together is small.

It's the same as with oil-painting – if you mix too many colors, you end up with something that looks like mud.

If some players are playing a memorized (or from-music) part, you can add more of them as you like. Just don't add too many people who are playing music by improvising. There's a reason Jazz groups aren't large.

Instruments that can play chords, or at least multiple notes at the same time, are best for supplying the harmonic framework. Instruments that can only play a single note at a time, are best for improvising melody.

Drums (percussion) will work with any instrument, regardless of key-signature.

What Key-Signature Should You use?

If you have a singer (or singers) singing along with you, the key-signature needs to fit their range.

With KeyMusician Keyboards, the key-signature doesn't matter – every key-signature is as easy as any other key-signature.

Be aware that for Guitarists, some key-signatures are easier to play chords in than others. If Guitarists use a capo, they need to know the capo-modified chord to play, that corresponds to the piano chords, shown in the music PDF files.

If you have players using band instruments, a good player can improvise in any key-signature, but for someone less-experienced, it will help if the key-signature they play has no flats or sharps.

But many different instruments have their music written in a different key-signature than a Synthesizer, Piano, or Guitar. The player of that instrument may, or may not, know the key-signatures a Synthesizer (for example) needs to use to match their key-signature.

Below is a list of instruments, along with the note (in their written music) they would play to produce a C note:

C (Concert Pitch) Instruments

Baritone (Bass Clef )

Bass Trombone

Bassoon

Cello

Flute

Harp

Harpsichord

Mallet Percussion

Marimba

Oboe

Organ

Piano

Piccolo

Synthesizer (KeyMusician Keyboard)

Timpani

Trombone

Trombone

Tuba

Vibraphone

Viola

Violin

Bb Instruments

Baritone (Treble Clef )

Bass Clarinet

Clarinet

Cornet

Soprano Saxophone

Tenor Saxophone

Trumpet

Eb Instruments

Alto Clarinet

Alto Saxophone

Baritone Saxophone

Soprano Clarinet

F Instruments

English Horn

French Horn

G Instruments

Alto Flute

The transposition necessary for a C instrument (such as the KeyMusician Keyboard) to play along with the music played by the various types of instruments, as shown in the KeyMusician Keyboard's “Set Transpose” window:


C Instruments


Bb Instruments


Eb Instruments


F Instruments


G Instruments

Since it's easy to play in any key-signature with the KeyMusician Keyboard, make it as easy as possible for the other players in your improvisation group. They will be better at improvising if they don't have to spend time thinking about the mechanics of playing the proper notes.

How The KeyMusician Keyboard Helps In Improvisation

By playing notes of the key-signature (no white-key black-key decisions), the instrument lets you concentrate on the music you're improvising (rather than the mechanics of playing it). I didn't realize how much easier it makes it, until I recently tried doing the same thing I do in the band, using a (piano-type) MIDI keyboard instead.

Using the Modal Chords system, gives you a big set of chords in the current key-signature, almost all of them built entirely on notes of the current key-signature. So other musicians improvising with you (when you play modal chords) will have good-sounding note choices as long as they stick to the notes of the current key-signature.

If you improvise with both hands on the melody section (which works well when using a gamers' keyboard), it will automatically play in-key-signature, regardless the key-signature currently in-use. In this mode of playing, it would take extra effort to play an accidental, so you are unlikely to play one by accident.

Organizing Your Improvisation Group

Instruments that can play multiple notes at the same time (or chords) are best for supplying the harmonic framework for the piece. Examples of such instruments are Guitars, and Keyboards of various types, including synthesizers.

Instruments that can only play one note at a time, are best used for improvising melody.

Drums (percussion) can be used with any combination of instrument, and are extremely useful in keeping the rhythm of the other players together.

Improvise your pieces using two, three, or four players at a time, one of which supplies the harmonic framework that the other players improvise with.

Be cautious about having more than four players in a group, and make sure the players are playing in the right key-signatures so that the sounds of the instruments match.

Also, care needs to be taken with each group of players playing together, that the volume played on each instrument is comparable to the other instruments, so that one instrument doesn't drown-out the others.

For people playing Guitars, or traditional music keyboards, have the following PDF files printed out, giving them a good choice of chords to choose from to make improvisation by the melody instruments easy.

Chords for C-Major and A-Minor (no flats or sharps) - PDF File

Sharps:

Chords for G-Major and E-Minor (1 sharp) - PDF File

Chords for D-Major and B-Minor (2 sharps) - PDF File

Chords for A-Major and F#-Minor (3 sharps) - PDF File

Chords for E-Major and C#-Minor (4 sharps) - PDF File

Chords for B-Major and G#-Minor (5 sharps) - PDF File

Chords for F#-Major and D#-Minor (6 sharps) - PDF File

Flats:

Chords for F-Major and D-Minor (1 flat) - PDF File

Chords for Bb-Major and G-Minor (2 flats) - PDF File

Chords for Eb-Major and C-Minor (3 flats) - PDF File

Chords for Ab-Major and F-Minor (4 flats) - PDF File

Chords for Db-Major and Bb-Minor (5 flats) - PDF File

Chords for Gb-Major and Eb-Minor (6 flats) - PDF File

What If An Accidental Is Needed?

If you creatively must use an accidental, it's not a disaster, though some players improvising melody with it may encounter a momentary 'sour-note', which they quickly pass-over, looking for a better choice. The fewer accidentals required by the chord, the lesser the potential bad effect.

For example, here's an excerpt of the music from the folk-song Scarborough Fair:





In this piece, the A-major chord requires a single accidental, the C-sharp, which is not in the key of E-minor (the key-signature of the piece). For playing that melody, there is no modal chord that can be used in its place. Not all tunes can be played entirely using notes of the key-signature, but most tunes can.

So for the duration of that measure (while you hold out that chord), if a player improvising melody plays a C, it will be a momentary 'sour-note', which they will quickly pass-over, looking for a better choice. In that measure, the A and the E notes would sound good to linger-on for that chord.

More About Improvisation

You can learn more about improvisation by clicking on the links below:

Improvisation 101 – An introduction to Improvisation

Improvising A Piece Entirely With The Melody Keys

Conclusions

It's quite easy for musicians playing a wide variety of musical instruments, to easily improvise music together. The information in this article should help make it even easier.

Go ahead and organize your own improvisation group – you can make beautiful music together, and you may naturally become a band.



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