Improvisation means making up music freely and spontaneously.
Improvisation is the heart of every kind of musical creativity. Even a composer spontaneously makes up his or her music before writing it down for posterity.
Listening to adults talk, and then repeating those words and improvising with them is how you became fluent in English.
You can learn become a fluent improviser the same way.
Are you thinking, I barely know how to play … how can I improvise?
Trust me, you can. In fact, “improv” is actually less demanding than learning a written piece because you can’t make mistakes. I don’t mean mistakes aren’t permitted. When you’re improvising, mistakes aren’t possible, because you’re not trying to play certain notes exactly right.
The best attitude when improvising is to listen, let go, and express yourself. Treat it like you’re just “goofing off.”
So how do you sound good the first time you improvise? By limiting yourself. Does that sound strange? Isn’t creativity all about doing anything you want? Nope. Limits are vital for creativity.
A painting is limited by its subject, color palette, and the size of its canvas.
Music – even the greatest music – is limited by its key, structure, the range of the instruments it’s written for, and other attributes.
An easy way to start is by restricting yourself to five keys. Five black keys, to be precise. Any five adjacent black keys comprise one of five orders of the “G♭ major pentatonic scale.” So by restricting yourself to five black keys, you’re also restricting yourself to one musical “key” – the key of G♭.
Are you ready? Place the five fingers of your right hand on five adjacent black keys in the middle of the keyboard. Just above Middle C is a good place.
Learning to improvise in a “call and response” fashion is how you learned to speak English: your parents talked and you imitated them. Soon enough, you were making up your own sentences.
So here’s how this will work: I’ll improvise (using an acoustic piano) for about 8 measures (about 20 seconds). When I pause, it’s your turn to continue improvising for the next 8 measures. We’ll keep trading off the same way for a few minutes. Ready?
How’d it go?
Did you notice I didn’t just play non-stop? Instead, I played “phrases” of different lengths – the same way we speak English sentences with brief pauses between them.
Maybe you also noticed that I occasionally repeated notes and groups of notes. Repetition is very important in improvising (more on that later).
Try improvising with the track one more time, this time focusing on playing discrete phrases and sometimes repeating notes or groups of notes.
Here’s the most important thing: relax and have fun!
P.S. If you take away just one thing from this mini-lesson, remember that mistakes aren’t possible when you improvise.