Improvisation 101

This month's article is about musical improvisation. It includes a number of techniques used in improvisation, which can be helpful in trying it out. It is in essence a beginning class in musical improvisation.

Many people find the words 'composition' and 'improvisation' to be scary words, thinking these are things that only true music masters can do, or are only for people with some vague, magical talent.

But many who try it, find it is far easier even than playing other people's music. It can even be easier than humming along with a tune (which is actually, a common form of improvisation).

Try it and see for yourself.

Why Improvisation?

Unless you're a very good (and experienced) sight-reader, you can always play a more impressive piece of music by improvising it, than you can by reading and playing the impressive music of someone else. Also, you will learn that impressive piece much more quickly.

Using improvisation, even though your play-list in a performance is the same, each performance is different, with pleasant surprises for your audience.

In adding new instrument sounds to your band (assuming it's not a high school or university band or orchestra), you are very unlikely to find written music for the part played by your new instrument. Also, just playing the solo part (or playing another part in unison with the instrument it is written for) is not very impressive.

Beginning bands play unison (all instruments playing the same part) – not professional/performing bands.

To play an impressive part for your new instrument sound, you will have to improvise it.

But you don't need to worry – improvisation is the easiest (and most fun) method of learning to play music.

It's far different from learning to do a math problem, but rather, more like learning to play on a swing-set. As with learning to play on a swing-set, there are a number of things you learn that make it a lot easier (remember the first time you learned to swing), and which you do instinctively once you learn them.

With me, improvisation solved my major stage-fright problem, in that what I play doesn't need to be a perfect rendition of a known piece, but an interesting version of a known piece that sounds good. I no longer have the apprehension of getting it perfect, but only of making it sound wonderful.

In this method of playing, there aren't mistakes – only 'happy accidents', and the cardinal rule is to just keep playing on to the end of the piece. Hey, you might even end the piece differently – who knows?

Improvisation Techniques

  1. Harmony influences (or generates) melody

While improvising melody notes while a given chord is playing (held-out, or played repeatedly), certain notes will sound good with that chord, other notes will sound not-so-good with the chord, and still other notes will sound bad with the chord.

Notes that sound good with a chord tend to be the same notes (probably in octaves above, or below the chord notes) that make up the chord. So playing with the “Chords” pane visible will give you visual hints. But really, the best way is to listen.

If you happen to choose a not-so-good note, or even a bad note with the chord, you move on to a better-sounding note, and linger on good-sounding notes.

The listener will not notice a not-so-good note, or not be annoyed by a bad note, as long as the note is short, and you quickly move on to a better-choice note.

When you first learn improvisation, you may have no idea of what notes you should play, and simply try notes at random. This is okay, as long as you listen to how your notes sound, quickly moving on over not-so-good notes, and lingering on good-sounding notes.

With experience, you learn what notes sound good with particular chords, and choose those notes instinctively.

If you really have a hard time telling what notes sound good with a chord, and what notes don't, you may not have a good sense of pitch, in which case it will be more productive for you to stick to playing written music.

  1. Runs of notes

In Jazz music (which relies on improvisation), you often hear runs of notes. This is not done to impress you with how well they can play scales.

A run of notes is like getting on an elevator, going up, or going down, searching for the right floor to get off on.

You have an idea of the note you want, but you're not sure precisely which one it is. As you go up (or down) the notes of the scale, you find that note you are searching for, and linger on it.

As stated in the prior section, the listener will forgive the brief notes you pass over, and enjoy the note you find to linger on.

I think another reason jazz musicians use runs of notes is to keep the piece from being centered on a particular note or harmony, giving other musicians in the group the freedom to take the piece in any direction, but I am guessing on this.

  1. Call-and-response

Before there was written music, a song leader would sing a line or two of a song, and the other singers would sing that same line (or lines) of the song, using the same notes the leader used. This way, no written music is needed, since the leader might do the song from memory.

You can do something similar in improvisation, though you don't need to precisely repeat the notes of the leader (or of the melody). You can do an interesting approximation of the music the leader played.

This call and response can even be like a conversation, where the leader makes a musical statement, and you respond with your musical answer.

  1. Echoing musical phrases

In improvising new melodies (or counter-melodies) along with the lead part, it is reasonably easy to echo-back phrases you hear in the melody. It is harder to echo-back long phrases (playing them by ear), but short phrases are fairly easy.

For example, in a song, a phrase sung by the lead singer might be “Across the bridge,” (holding out the note for the word “bridge”), and the improvisational play might echo-back the “Across the bridge” notes. Those echoed-back notes might be the same, or they might be interestingly different, but similar enough to be recognized as the same phrase.

Often the phrase echoed will be at the end of a musical line, where the last note of the line is held-out (giving you time to do the echo).

  1. Predictable harmonic changes

If there is a known, agreed-upon sequence of chords that the piece being improvised is based on, all players can improvise their melodies anticipating the chord change, rather than waiting for it (and adapting after hearing it).

An easy way of doing this, is to have the piece based on a series of ascending (or descending) chords. You might think this would over simplify the piece, and that no real musician would use it, but there are top-40's hits done this way.

The song “Loving You”, by Minnie Riperton, is based on a repeated series of four chords. It's in the key of B-flat major (2 flats), and the chords are E-flat major 7th, D-minor 7th, C-minor 7th, and B-flat major 7th. She sings it (I think) in an amazingly improvisational style.

In classical music, composers use this as well. The 4th movement of Brahms' 4th symphony is built entirely on a sequence of 8 chords, repeated over and over throughout the piece. Of course, those chords are played in imaginatively different ways, with an amazing variety of melodies improvised against those chords.

  1. Passing the 'lead'

Jazz performers, with their reliance an improvisation, tend not to perform in large groups. A reason for this, is that too many improvised parts together, can sound like total disorder, or like the sound of a symphony orchestra tuning-up (where its many members make use of the time to practice difficult passages).

A way around the 'many players = disorder' problem, is to pass the 'lead' to different players in the group. In doing this, the band leader will designate a person to take the lead, and other players will play music supporting the designated player's tune.

This method also shows off the particular abilities of each member of the group.

The 'lead' is typically passed to each member of the band, with not too much time spent on any one player.

Sometimes the audience will respond (applaud) to the initiative of a given player.

  1. Pulling the 'heart-strings'

Your choice of chords is the main way you influence the emotions of your listeners, but there are other ways as well.

Though it is somewhat an over-simplification, we tend to think of different chords yielding different feelings, such as:

You can also affect emotion in your choice of melody notes. Reaching up for high notes tends to tends to increase the tension in the listener. Surprisingly, it is because many people have experience singing, and to get the high notes, they have to strain to sing them. This strain unconsciously carries over into listening to high notes.

A sudden loud note yields surprise, and a note held out, fading away leads to reflection.

  1. Injecting randomness

Sometimes in improvising a piece, I will shut my eyes, and keep playing. By not watching, the tune will eventually wander into realms of harmony I would not have chosen. Of course, in improvisation, you do not ever stop, so you gracefully work your way out of the situation if it's not something you particularly like.

Yet some of these moments can be very good, and you may linger. Even getting out of unexpected harmonies can be interesting.

  1. Interacting with fellow musicians, and your audience

If you are playing a musical conversation with one of the other musicians, it's useful to watch them, getting clues from there facial expressions. In a duet (two musicians playing together), it can be useful for you to (at least partially) face eachother. Any clues you get this way can allow you to act on them musically.

In a similar vein, you can watch your audience, and if you see someone reacting to something you played, you can elaborate musically on what you just played that affected them. This also means a lot to the member of the audience you responded to.

I noticed once in a performance that I was getting applause for taking a risk, and playing difficult phrases. That response inspired me to keep taking such risks, and doing even more.

  1. Counter-melodies (contrapuntal melodies)

Counter-melodies are different from the main melody, but they blend with the main melody. They are melodies unto themselves, just as rewarding for a performer to play as the main melody. They are in synchronization with, and end at the same time as the main melody.

A simple oom-paa oom-paa type tune in the bass is not a counter-melody, in that it is not a melody in itself (it is rather, supporting notes). It is also not as rewarding to play as a counter-melody.

A counter-melody is every bit as beautiful and interesting as the main melody.

The composer J. S. Bach was a master of creating counter-melodies (contrapuntal melodies).

As you get better at improvisation, try improvising counter-melodies. Your audience will love it.

  1. Ending the piece

In improvisation, a proper ending to your improvised melody is important. It should end on a note that sounds good for the end of the piece.

Just stopping playing at the end, possibly on a not-so-good note, is not a good thing to do, as it identifies you as an amateur.

Pay special attention to the notes leading to the end of the piece, and follow the lead of the person leading at the end of the piece if necessary. You can creatively work your way to that perfect ending note, if you think ahead.

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 would like to try musical improvisation using the KeyMusician Keyboard, you may want to also check out two of the KeyMusician tutorials (you need your user-ID/password for accessing the member-pages to do so):

Improvising Your Own Music with MIDI Files

Improvising Your Own Music With Audio Files

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