6 Steps to Start Improvising Music

Oct 31, 2018

Learning to improvise music is a common goal for many musicians, especially in jazz, blues, and rock and roll. But to become a great improviser you need to release your inner musical instincts, and then learn to control that flow. This isn’t a skill that comes overnight, and in fact, will most likely be a long-term goal that pushes you to your musical limits, and beyond.

Although the exact what, why, and when of improvisation can vary by instrument, there are some tips and strategies for getting started that work no matter your instrument or style of music you play. So, let’s dive right in to our six simple steps for developing your skills as an improvising musician.

  1. Sing Along

Possibly the best way to get started, build confidence, and gain at least a little personal experience in improvisation is to sing along to your favourite recorded songs.

Find a quiet space where you can be alone and put on some of your favourite music. A perfect and polished performance is unimportant right now – especially if you don’t think of yourself as a singer. Just start making sounds that fit well with whatever you’re listening to. If you want to sing, then sing! If you’d rather whistle or hum, that’s fine too.

The goal is to help release some fresh musical ideas. Stick to improvised sounds, rather than lyrics, and your mind will be free to flow and create new compositions around and based on what you’re listening to.

  1. Play Along

Once you feel like you understand how improvisation works by singing along to your favourites, you can try adding in your instrument. Start with an instrumental piece and play along. At first, you might worry or not be sure what to play – don’t focus on that! You’ll know what’s right by trusting your own ears! If it sounds right, then it is right.

This simple exercise can not only help you to learn to improvise imaginatively, it can also help you break through that barrier of doubt and worry that you can’t do it. Try to remember that everyone’s first attempts at improvised music sound bad, and even experienced and “good” improvisers sometime play a “wrong” note. Just remind yourself that you’re learning, and there’s no one around to hear you anyway.

If you happen to play more than one instrument, try improvising on each of them and listen for the different results. The differences in speed, tone, flexibility, muscle memory, and visual thinking will give you new and exciting ideas for your improvising.

Another technique is to grab your instrument, find a note you like that fits the key, and start playing. You may be surprised at how far you can get with a single note!

  1. Play With Melody

When learning to improvise, the melody can actually give you a great starting point. In fact, you can actually play a melody and then create your own interpretation of that melody.

The secret to great improvisation is creativity. Take your melody, and try changing a note or phrase by adding in your own embellishments. You may be surprised at just how much you can personalize the music with a simple and small adjustment to the melody.

Try making a game out of it. Play your melody over and over, making one more change with each repetition. Before long, you’ll have created something that is unrecognizable from the original. If you stick to the basics of music theory when choosing your new notes (e.g. sticking in the scale is a great place to start) then your new composition will be an alternative melody that still fits well with the original song.

  1. Play With Rhythm

Many people consider rhythm to be the key to great improvisation. In order to be creative with rhythm effectively you need a strong rhythmic foundation so that you’re confident and free to make changes that still make sense.

Start out by experimenting with rhythm in the same way you experimented with notes – start by playing the melody and make a small change to the rhythm by hitting a note just a tad earlier, or later, than expected. Pay attention to the impact this has. Shifting the beat like this is called “syncopation,” and it means notes happen off the beat. This is a simple, yet powerful way to give your performances your own twist.

Take it another step further by really changing the rhythm, and before long, you’ll have created something new.

Of course, the real magic of improvisation happens when you mix these two aspects – choosing notes and timing based purely on your own imagination and instincts.

  1. Embrace Your Mistakes/Accidents

Learning to improvise music means coming out of your comfort zone to explore something risky and different. Learning to play a song from sheet music means ironing out all the mistakes and learning to play it as it’s printed on the sheet – you need to learn to avoid playing notes which aren’t there, or playing notes at the “wrong” time.

On the other hand, with improvisation, there are no rules about “right” or “wrong” notes, or when to play them. There are only notes that sound good and notes that don’t.

But here’s the thing: if you play a note that sounds bad while improvising, you can’t go back and fix it! Unlike performing prepared music, where playing a wrong note is a mistake that passes, with improvisation, it becomes an interesting opportunity: you have the chance to use your creativity in that moment to find a way to turn that bad note into a good one, and bring the music back together in an exciting and unexpected way.

So if you mess up and hit a note that sounds sour during practice, don’t stop or panic! Just keep going in your new key, and try to find your way back. This can help give you an idea of how far your creativity can take you, and you’ll be surprised by the positive effect it can have on your audience. Most of the time they won’t even know it was a “mistake!”

  1. Record Yourself – And Review It

When you’re just starting out with learning to improvise, it can be hard to remember the things you played in the tiny lessons you learn with each note choice. Try recording your practice sessions, and build on them. Remember, you need to actually listen to the recordings to get any benefits from them! Listening to yourself will help you to understand your strengths, as well as areas you need more work. You may even pick up a great idea or two from listening to yourself!

Start Today!

One of the greatest joys of playing an instrument is the ability to spontaneously create music on the spot. Whether you’re an amateur, an experienced musician, or a rock star, no one can argue against the fact that improvising music skillfully is a powerful skill. It requires creativity, commitment, and a willingness and readiness to always learn something new.