By: Konner Scott
It’s common for budding musicians to begin their journey by learning how to read sheet music and play songs note for note. The methodology here is very straightforward (but certainly not easy!): learn one measure at a time, start slow, pick up speed, and fine tune the song as you become more and more comfortable with it.
Eventually, though, musicians will often get to the intermediate level and start to wonder about improvisation. The act of inventing music on the fly can seem quite daunting and open ended: how do I know what to play? How do I play it without messing up? How do I ensure I’m not just playing the same thing over and over again?
These are all complicated questions with complicated solutions. I have spent a lifetime trying to learn to improvise, yet still feel like I’m standing at the base of Mount Everest. However, over time, I’ve picked up a bunch of tips and tricks that have provided me with some direction, and I’d like to share some with you here.
Although these strategies can apply to most instruments, I’m going to take a piano-centric approach, as it’s perhaps the most versatile instrument when it comes to improvisation.
Learn Music Theory
It’s painful, and it’s extremely mathematical, but it’s necessary. Learn the basics of music theory. Understand how a major scale is constructed, then learn how to build major and minor chords. Learn diatonic chord theory (the chords that can be constructed from each major scale), and how they function in the context of a song. Learn about chord inversions. Learn a little bit about suspended chords, 7th chords, and diminished chords.
You don’t need to have a master’s degree in jazz music in order to improvise well, but it will be much more difficult if you don’t have a cursory understanding of what you’re trying to play. It’s a rare talent that can get by playing only by ear without any understanding of conventional music theory whatsoever, and even someone with off-the-charts talent will eventually be stunted by their lack of knowledge.
Play What You Love
If you have a favorite song or band, that’s a fantastic place to start! If the song or band is popular, it will be quite easy to find resources online. These could be chord charts, sheet music, or video tutorials of someone showing you how to play the song.
Learn a bunch of songs by your favorite band, then learn a bunch of songs by similar bands! Since you enjoy the music you’re learning, the chord progressions & melodic patterns that resonate with you will be easier to grasp, and you’ll recognize useful patterns more quickly. (For bonus points, learn each song in all 12 keys. It takes MUCH more time, but there are no words for how valuable a skill this is!)
Once you’ve learned a bunch of songs, you’ll probably have built a small library of chords and melodies that you can try to apply to your own improvisation. Don’t feel like you’re “stealing” chords from your favorite bands if your first improvised tunes just synthesize a bunch of chords you’ve ripped directly from their music- that’s how it starts! Over time, as you continue to expand your ‘musical library’, you’ll be able to string chords and melodies together in more unique ways that are a reflection of your personal style, rather than an obvious amalgamation of other influences.
Learn, Practice, then Explore
To be able to improvise with beautiful chords and melodies, you first need to learn how to play chords and melodies. Start simple, but as you grow as a musician, try to elevate the complexity of chords and melodies that you learn to play. Again- learn them in all 12 keys! It’ll feel painstaking, but take the time. You will always be limited by the keys in which you can’t play.
Once you’ve learned and practiced a bunch of chords, chord progressions, and melody riffs, spend some time spontaneously stringing them together. It won’t sound good at first! You’ll be slow, awkward, and clunky; and you’ll play a bunch of things that feel wrong or don’t work. This is as valuable as learning how to play things that DO work: your brain will start to subconsciously internalize what patterns are useful- and which ones aren’t. It just takes time!
On that note, the more you improvise, the better you’ll become! When I learn a new melody or chord progression, I try to spend a bunch of days in a row improvising with my new material in every key. The goal is to internalize the new information so deeply that it comes out naturally in my playing, and the only way to make this possible is to play it every day for a while. This trains my brain to understand that the new chords & melodies I’ve learned are important, and are worth expressing in my music.
Go Easy on Yourself- and Have Fun!
It’s easy to get frustrated while learning to improvise, and you’ll inevitably hit brick walls where it feels like your efforts are futile. Don’t be afraid to take breaks! These can either involve walking away for a while, or pausing on your new material and spending some time improvising using skills you’re already comfortable with. All your hard work is meant to give you the tools to play exciting chord progressions & melodies in real time, and if you don’t spend some time enjoying the fruits of your labor, then what’s the point?