How Do Musicians Improvise?
Singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists all improvise. In fact, some of the best-selling songs of the century were composed spontaneously in less than ten minutes. Improvising sometimes gets a bad rep, but it’s actually a really valuable skill in the music industry.
When a musician improvises, they let their creativity lead. They experiment with rhythm, melody, and learn to play by ear to create a unique, raw solo. Musical improvisation is done on the spot, but it’s a skill that comes with rules and requires practice.
Whether you’re a guitarist, pianist, singer, or songwriter; learning to improvise will make you a more rounded musician. Read on for a comprehensive guide on how to learn to improvise, whatever your level or field of music.
What does it mean to improvise music?
Musical improvisation is the technical term for when singers or musicians create/change music on the spot without any planning or preparation beforehand.
Also known as musical extemporization, there are several ways an artist can improvise. A singer can change the lyrics, harmonies, or rhythms during their performance and an instrumentalist can alter notes, rhythm, and add riffs.
Sometimes, musical improvisation can be a completely spontaneous decision that even the artist hadn’t anticipated before getting on stage or performing.
Improvising can sometimes seem daunting, as it’s hard to know where to start. But as long as you follow the basic rules and keep it simple, you can’t go far wrong if you follow your creativity and let yourself just go with it.
Why is musical improvisation important?
Improvisation might sound like a last resort; something an artist would do if their performance went slightly off track and they had to cover up a mistake. But improvisation is actually a really valuable skill in the music industry and doesn’t deserve the bad rep it sometimes gets.
Musical improvisation has lots of important merits, for example:
- It draws out self-expression and emotion.
- It encourages creativity.
- Everyone – including those who can’t read music very well – gets an equal chance to create and perform.
- It puts your own stamp on songs/musical pieces.
- It helps you explore your voice and ability, which means you can find who you are as a musician.
Musical improvisation songs
Improvisation isn’t just something amateur musicians use; even the biggest names in the music industry have improvised when performing – and creating – their tracks.
These ten songs were written on the spot in around ten minutes by iconic popstars:
#1 The Cave by Mumford and Sons
#2 Photograph by Ed Sheeran
#3 Super Bass by Nicki Minaj
#4 Yesterday by The Beatles
#5 See You Again by Wiz Khalifa ft Charlie Puth
#6 Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns and Roses
#7 Just Dance by Lady Gaga
#8 Skyfall by Adele
#9 Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes
#10 All Falls Down by Kanye West
Musical improvisation doesn’t just happen on stage – it can happen when writing lyrics and composing too. Some of these songs were scribbled down during soundchecks while the band members were improvising and warming-up on their instruments.
Learning to improvise
The whole point of improvisation is to be free and spontaneous – so it might seem strange that you have to learn how to improvise. But improvising is a skill and takes even the best of musicians a bit of time and practice to learn.
To improvise, you’ll need to tune into your musical imagination and be prepared to go with the flow – even if you sound a bit silly at first.
You’ll need to learn how to “play by ear”; something you can do by learning the basics on your instrument and then learning some creativity-inducing exercises.
How do you improvise?
If you’re new to musical improvisation, it can be hard to know where to start with a spontaneous solo.
You don’t have to go completely rouge; there are 3 basic guidelines you can keep coming back to whenever you improvise to give your solo a bit of structure:
- Repeat notes and short patterns during your solo
- Don’t feel like you have to play a note on every beat – experiment with holding notes and changing the dynamics
- Don’t overplay; incorporate spaces and breaks in your solo
How to improvise on guitar
Improvisation is an especially good skill for a guitarist to have. Some of the best in the business have created iconic guitar solos and killer riffs completely on the spot – and have gone down in history for it.
Guitar improvisation starts with learning the basics on your guitar and learning how to spontaneously apply these to create powerful improvised musical phrases. The four basic steps to guitar improvisation are:
Practice and learn the pentatonic scale
Learning scales will get you familiar with your guitar, and open-up more possibilities when you do improvised licks and solos.
If you’re not familiar with pentatonic scales, start by learning how to play a simple minor pentatonic fretboard pattern. Play this pattern as a scale up and down all six guitar strings to get familiar with it.
Learn arpeggio notes
It won’t sound very impressive if you just play scales up and down during your solos – good guitar improvisation requires you to create musical phrases.
Learning and using arpeggio notes will add melody to your improvised performances and inject flavour into your licks.
Practice your guitar licks
Guitar licks are a big part of guitar improvisation. Once you know how to play scales and arpeggios, you’ll have the foundation to start to learn more impressive guitar licks.
Practice your licks and learn some techniques like string bending and vibrato to make your improvised solos more impressive and powerful.
Start improvising along to a backing track
The best way to learn to improvise is to actually start improvising. Now you’ve practiced your scales, arpeggios, and licks, you can try creating an improvised piece along to a backing track.
You can use a real backing band, a metronome, or even search for a “backing track in A Minor” on YouTube to practice with. Practice creating improvised melodies but pay attention to the beat and harmony of the track to stop your improvisation going astray.
How to improvise on the piano
An improvised piece on the piano can be incredibly powerful and add real depth to a performance. But it’s quite a difficult skill to learn to do and requires some framework.
To master improvisation on the piano, it’s good to learn some techniques you can apply to every new piece of music. There are 3 ways you can practice improvising on the piano:
Play melodies using one hand at a time
Improvising on the piano can be quite tricky, and it’s twice as hard if you try to jump in with both hands straight away. Start by playing one note at a time, using just one hand.
You can practice playing along to a backing track, running through a melody, and changing the licks and riffs a tiny bit each time you repeat the melody. This will help you learn what sounds good and will give structure to your improvisation.
Learn the basic major/minor triad chords
It might seem time-consuming, but learning your triad cords and shapes will help you better visualise your piano.
This will work wonders when you improvise on the piano, because you’ll no longer be a “sheet music pianist” and will feel much freer and more confident to experiment and improvise.
You can learn your triads by playing one key at a time and learning the main triads that go with that key. Experiment with playing them as blocks, arpeggios, and practice transitioning between the chords that belong to that key in different ways. This will develop your ability to play by ear.
- Choose lead sheets instead of full sheet music A lead sheet will only show you the bare structure to a piece and will encourage you to get creative. Unlike full sheet music, a lead sheet will only give you one example of each section of the piece, the melody, and the chord symbols. This is a great way to work on your improvisation. The lead sheet will give you a basic understanding of the piece, but it’ll leave the lead-in, structure, and musical style for you to decide.
Whether you’re playing the piano, guitar, or any other instrument; all the different keys and chords give endless options for improvisation. But playing every key and embellishing your piece to death won’t sound great to your audience – you need to find the balance between complete freedom and following the rules.
This is where improvisational constraints come in; helping you strike the balance between following sheet music/fretboard patterns and adding your own flare. A good improvisational constraint to use is limiting yourself to just three notes on the scale to improvise with.
By limiting yourself to fewer notes, you’ll be forced to repeat the same patterns and lick during your improvised solo – which will help your solo sound more musical and controlled.
Improvisation isn’t limited to instrumentalists; singers improvise when they perform, too. Vocal improvisation is the art of spontaneously singing and is one of the best ways to establish yourself as a unique, original artist.
If you don’t know where to start with learning vocal improv, here are some good exercises to get you started:
- Listen to instrumental improvisations in your favourite genre.
- Choose your favourite solo and try to mimic their improv techniques.
- Use improvisation as your vocal warm-up.
- Sing arpeggios and scales to improve your harmonic awareness.
- Try lots of different articulation features when you improvise (like accents, staccato, and legato) to create rhythm in your solo.
How do you improvise a melody?
Improvising a melody doesn’t have to be as hard as it sounds. You can learn to do it without a backing track and by just singing acapella.
Start by singing a long note in your tessitura (you can choose any sound or syllable to use.) Hold the note for a couple of seconds and then try to incorporate a simple improvised melodic pattern into the note – you can do this by playing around with your tone, colour, and rhythm.
See how long you can keep embellishing the melodic pattern for; don’t be afraid to just go with it and see what happens. That’s all there is to improvising a basic melody.
How do you improvise a song?
Singers and songwriters often use improvisation to improve their tracks, whether it’s on stage or while jotting down new lyrics.
Improvising on the spot can seem quite daunting and difficult, but there’s plenty of exercises that artists can do to tease out their creativity and improvisation skills. Here are some ideas to get you comfortable with improvising:
- Invent your own lyrics – play an unfamiliar backing track on your computer or phone and invent your own lyrics and melody on the spot to go with it.
- Experiment with melody – write a list of catchy phrases that spontaneously spring to mind. Start singing your phrases as lyrics, each time experimenting with different melodies to develop an ear for what sounds good.
- Experiment with rhythm – hit a note earlier or later than usual in a melody and pay attention to what impact it has.
- React to what’s around you – use your surroundings (like the weather, people, and the environment) and the noises they give off as inspiration for rhythm or tone.
- Record and listen to yourself – playing back your improvised solos will help you pick apart what sounds good and what doesn’t.
How do Jazz musicians improvise?
Jazz is the music genre that’s most commonly associated with improvisation. Some pieces of improvised Jazz are so well crafted that they sound like they were composed.
Jazz musicians improvise by spontaneously creating new melodies or accompaniment parts to play over a continuously repeating cycle of chords in the background. The guitarists, pianists, bassists, and drummers set the rhythm and harmony, and the soloist spontaneously creates their improvised variations to play over the top.
“Free blowing” is a type of improvisation used in Free Jazz. This is where Jazz musicians improve completely freely and even ignore chord changes during their solos.
Rules of improvisation, music
Spontaneity is at the heart of improvisation, so there are no strict rules on how to improvise – every musician has their own approach to their solos.
But there are a few things you might want to pay attention to, to make sure your solos sound musical and well-crafted rather than OTT. Always try to:
- Keep it simple.
- Know your scales.
- Balance your use of consonance and dissonance.
- Use both ascending and descending lines.
- Find a balance between scales and arpeggio motion.
- Incorporate rests and spaces.
Improvisation music examples
If you’re finding it hard to get to grips with improvisation, watch some videos of your favourite musicians improvising on stage for an example of how it’s done.
Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page are some of the most famous musical improvisers and are a great example if you’re a guitarist looking for inspiration.
You can start by mimicking the technique of other artists, then adding your own spin on it. If you’re looking for examples of improvised singing, Musical Improv Comedy has some great exercises and games to get you started.
What is the opposite of improvisation in music?
The opposite of improvisation would be to plan and premeditate your performance. If you follow full sheet music to the dot and don’t incorporate any unplanned solos, riffs, or any spontaneous sections in your piece, you’re doing the opposite of improvising.
Musicians don’t have to improvise and there’s nothing wrong with following set harmonies and rhythms when you perform. There are benefits to planning and premeditating your musical performance; like precision, accuracy, and hitting all the right notes.
Improvisation also has its own benefits, and sometimes incorporating a mixture of both premeditation and improvisation in your pieces will make you a more rounded musician.
What are the benefits of music improvisation?
Improvisation doesn’t undermine the importance of hitting the right notes and precision; it just brings a raw, creative element to your performance that following a music sheet might not allow.
There are lots of benefits to improvising during your performance, it:
- Trains your ear to hear how notes work together
- Makes music theory easier to understand/learn
- Helps refine scale, chord, and arpeggio concepts
- Improves your overall understanding of music
- Can make you a better composer
- Reduces stress and anxiety
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is the difference between composing and improvising?
When a musician improvises, it’s completely spontaneous; they play what comes to mind at that moment and haven’t pre-planned the piece. They go with their musical flow and don’t go back and edit their piece.
Composing is slightly different. The process might start out as spontaneous, with the composer improvising on an instrument to experiment with sounds and rhythms. But a composer will then go back and edit, reshape, and finesse their piece.
- What is scat singing?
Scat singing is another name for vocal improvisation. It’s used most commonly in vocal jazz and is a form of vocal improvisation where the singer uses their voice like an instrument (rather than a speaking apparatus) to create improvised melodies and rhythms.