In reality, virtually all (human created) music is created in one way or another via improvisation. In some cases this is done explicitly and publicly, for example as is mainly the case with Jazz and in instrumental breaks in live pop music. In other cases it is done privately, that is, when music is “composed” bit by bit, with the final result is only presented publicly once those bits have been sorted and arranged. Such composition processes are not always thought of or presented as improvisation, but at some point along the way the “composer” must coax ideas from their imagination in some way, and then “play around” with those ideas. One might therefore view improvisation as an important part of the composition process, if not the only part. In any case, the does one “improvise”? It’s not a simple question actually. The simple answer of course is “just do it,” but that’s not saying much. It took me many years to learn (which can read more about in my Bio). Here is a longer answer:
First, it can be helpful to have something to play over, that is, something that drives things along, so to speak, that keeps a rhythm, and possibly background chords as well. There are many possible ways, some of which are:
- Improvise freely with other musicians: This is perhaps the best way, for lots of reasons. Establishing some consensus at the outset though that you are intentionally creating an improvisational situation for the sake of exploration is a good idea, because some people may have different ideas, such as wanting to nail everything down right away, or pretty soon, for commercial reasons, or whatever. And of course playing with a particular group or people or person might not work out depending on personalities, musical preferences, etc. When it does work out though the experience can be fantastic, leading to the things that you could have never come up with in isolation. Think of the Beetles.
- Record a backing track: This is pretty easy to do these days on a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), such as Logic Pro X (my preference, due to its preloaded virtual synthesizer and percussion plugins and various other factors). This can be an on-ramp and part and parcel to recording your own compositions as well. Logic Pro X also offers “drummers” and sequencers (more about the latter below).
- Use a looper pedal: Looper pedals, which range from very simple to very sophisticated devices offering all sorts of features, are wonderful for creating a repetitive backtracks, but also much more: You can layer sound on sound to great huge tapestries of sound very easily. One can do that too using a multitrack DAW, but the experience tends to be a bit different, and in my experience, a bit more unpredictable and spontaneous with a looper. Loopers are also well suited to live performance. You can hear an example of this in my “Dragon Synth Live at the Barrage” recording.
- Use a sequencer or arpeggiator Many synthesizers have sequencers or arpeggiator that can be used to generate repetitive sequences of notes. With arpeggiators for example one can hold down a set of notes and have them repeated in a variety of different (and sometimes very complex) sequences, or just vary your hand pattern a lot to create variation. My personal favorite synthesizer arpeggiator is the one provided by the Crumar Spirit, and little known synthesizer from circa 1983 that I was fortunate to get some time with once.
Instead of backing tracks, one can also play over a drone. Some musical traditions, such as Indian Classical Music, make extensive use of drones. These can give the music a powerful, meditative or hypnotic quality. The drone might be as simple as a constant bass note held by the left hand on a keyboard or foot pedal, or a repetitive sequence of notes, or both.
When playing guitar, a favorite drone technique of mine is to tune the lowest strings down one full step (to D and G, instead of E and A) to create a drone. I like to wander around in natural places with this and play over the top of the drone. This was the basis for “The Desert Suite,” on which album my wife Janice added keyboard parts (including an additional keyboard drone on top of the guitar drone).
Getting Started with a Simple Left-hand Pattern
For something more driving than a drone, especially when playing alone, try sitting at the keyboard and playing the simplest possible rhythmic bass line in C: Quarter note bass notes alternating in octaves: C2 – C3 – C2 – C3 – C2 – C3 … This provides both rhythm and a tonal center. Then try to improvise notes in the C scale over very randomly, in whatever way occurs to you. It may not sound wonderful at first, but try not to judge and see what happens. Try varying the bass notes too as you go.
Next, and this may resonate with you if you’ve been trying to do what was suggested in the previous paragraph, consider that when people first try improvising on keyboard instruments they often suppose that they need to improvise a deliberate sequence of discrete notes similar to what one finds in a melody, or in a solo line played by a monophonic instrument like a saxophone. One can of course do this, but there is something much simpler and easier that you can try instead: Try just “grabbing” some clusters of notes with your right hand, and play around with just that single cluster for a few moments. For example, with C in the bass with the left hand, grab the notes G (thumb) – B-flat (index finger) – C – (middle finger) – Eflat (pinky) with the right hand. One can either repetitive play the notes in sequence. Or play them all-at-once as a slightly dissonant cluster.
Then shift your hand up and down to another cluster, say F (thumb) – G (index) – Bflat (ring finger) – C (pinky), and do the same thing. Now find and explore all the comfortable clusters you can grab, say, using the C-minor minor scale, or C-minor pentatonic scale (more about this one below).
As fun as note clusters are, one can get quickly tired of just do that. It’s therefore time to start “noodling around” more freely, as people like to say, with sequences of single notes in a less restrictive way. This colorful phrase captures both the casualness and freedom that you need to allow yourself to have while doing this (that is, DON’T worry at all about whether the notes are “right,” just experiment around), and also the sense of reversing direction back and forth as you go – like a tangled up noodle! One can of course do the same thing with timing as well.
More generally, you might ask yourself now as to what are all the notes that can you play around with in a particular key and mood? How do they relate to the notes played in the left hand? The next couple of sections below provides some ideas about that:
Now that you’ve experimented with clusters, try playing sequences of notes up and down the keyboard between these various clusters, say in groups of three of four in a row with different fingers, shifting your thumb underneath as you go up the keyboard to start a new group, or your fourth finger over the top if you going down. One subset of note sequences that are very useful and easy to learn and sound nice for initial experiments with noodling around are the so-called pentatonic (five note) scales. People often describe these as conveying an “Eastern” feeling, as they are much used in Asian music traditions, although they are widely used in rock and other music traditions as well. Learn to play a variety of pentatonic scales, and in particular, also learn the different clusters of notes within those scales that you can grab easily with your hand in the process. These scales can be used in either minor or major modalities. The A-minor (A-C-D-E-G) and C-minor (C-Eflat-F-F-Bflat) pentatonic scales are favorites of mine, and also Eflat-major, which has the same notes as the C-minor pentatonic, but with an Eflat in the bass to establish the tonal center as Eflat major instead of C minor.
Another very effective, and time honored approach to improvising is to start with melodies you already know well. Changing the notes around, altering the rhythm, and/or even altering the chords that go with the melody, can be a very fruitful way to create.
Now it’s time to add other notes (beyond the pentatonic), and also to vary the scales themselves. A very helpful notion here is the concept of “musical modes”: Put simply, the concept of modes refers to the pattern of whole and half steps relative to the tonic (the key or “tonal center” if you will, that would be established in the listener’s mind by, for example, a repetitive drone in the left hand). It is these patterns that really determines the feeling(s) that using a particular scale conveys. You can read complete (and complicated) discussions about modes elsewhere, such as on Wikipedia, but the essence of it is simple: Playing different scales over the same tonic gives very different feelings, and improvisational players hence tend to quickly develop a taste for various different modes. The different patterns for the different modes, as they are recognized today in modern parlance, can be seen on the keyboard in the following way: Consider the C major scale (all the white keys), but with different tonics (tonal centers, as established by the bass note) drawn from the same scale. Here is a table excerpted from Wikipedia, including links to pages describing the modes in more detail:
to major scale
|Sequence of Intervals:|
(W)hole steps and (H)alf steps
|Example using C-major|
My four favorite modes are:
- Lydian: Try, for example, playing an F in the bass, and noodling around the notes of a C Major scale on top. Or an E-flat in the bass, and the notes of the B-flat Major scale (my favorite due to its figuring characteristics on the keyboard). In this case noodling around the fourth note of the scale (a B if you’ve got C in the bass, or an A if you’ve got the E-flat instead) creates a mystical sounding tension, which is resolved by going down a note to the major third, or up a note to the fifth. (The notion of “resolving tension” in general is very important in the Theory of Harmony in general.) Now try playing parallel thirds around this note.
- Mixolydian: Try, for example, playing a G in the bass, and noodling around the notes of a C scale on top. Or try playing a C in the bass and the notes an F major scale (just one flat, a B-flat). This mode tends to convey (in my opinion) a very positive but also slightly mystical feeling. You will notice that noodling around the note just below the tonic (which would be an F in the first case with G in the bass, or a B-flat with C in the bass) creates a certain pleasing tension, which is resolved by falling down to the fifth, or returning to the tonic. This mode is widely used in jazz, rock, blues, and even bagpipe music.
- Aeolian: This is just the regular minor mode. Every major scale has its “relative minor,” that is, a minor scale consisting of the same notes. For example, A minor is relative minor of C major, which uses all the same notes, but starts (formally speaking) from an A instead of a C. Minor scales are sad and/or serious.
- Ionian: This is just the regular major mode. A bit plain vanilla, but still very nice.
Mixing Modes (Modulating), with the same scale
Now consider mixing up the modes, that is, shifting between between different modes, or in other parlance, “modulating” around. For example, try starting out with an A in the bass, and noodling around on the A minor scale (which has the same notes as the C Major scale, as A is the “relative minor” of C). You’re in Aeolian land here. Then shift down to an F in the bass, but keep playing the same note: Now you’re in Lydian, which brightens the mood considerably. Don’t forget to noodle around the fourth note (the B in this case). Now back up to the A, and then back down to the F. Note the shift in the mood.
Now shift the bass down to D. Now your in Dorian Mode, which I find a bit austere, but it’s useful here especially in contrast with the others.
Now, instead of going back to A in the bass, go to C: Now your happy land all of sudden (Dorian Mode – or C major), which creates a huge mood shift.
Now alternate between C and F and in bass, that is, between Dorian and Lydian, without forget to noodle around the B when F is in the bass. This keeps things happy, but enables you to inject some mystical feeling, and not bore everyone to tears.
Here’s another example: Try playing G in the bass and noodling around with the C major scale. You’re in Mixolydian, happy but mystical. Not shift down to an F in the bass. Your in Lydian Mode now, which is similar, but slightly different, keeping things interesting. Go back and forth for a while, and then shift down to C.
Mixing Modes (Modulating), with different scales
As interesting as the experiments above are, you’re going to get bored there too after awhile, and so now it’s time to start modulating the scale too. Try playing a C in the bass and noodling around with the pentatonic scale C-D-E-G-A. Then shift the bass up to E-flat, and noodle around with the pentatonic scale Eflat – F – G – Bflat – C. Then go back and forth. Note the way the mood shifts, even though you are not shift modes here.
Blues Notes – Moving outside the scale in the same tonic
Another thing you can start to try is to add in blues notes, for example in the form of grace notes. For example, try playing a C in the bass with the pentatonic scale C-Eflat-F-G-Bflat, which should come off as bluesy. The insert an Fsharp as a grace note leading into the G, or a repeating triplet like Fsharp-G-Bflat, over and over again quickly.
Finally, there are all sorts of special note patterns you can include in your improvisation that give different effects. Here are a few:
- Circles of fourths: Sequences like C-F-Bflat-Eflat-Aflat-Dflat-Fsharp-B-E-A-D-G-C. One can learn to play these in a complete sequence starting from any note.
- Complex repetitive sequences of notes in general
- Whole tone scale: Sequences like C-D-E-Fsharp-Gsharp-Asharp-C
- Parallel or alternating fifths
- Parallel or alternating thirds
- Parallel or alternating octaves
Many of these patterns can be shifted up and down the keyboard as you go.
Another major thing to explore are the different types of chords. You should actually build up your knowledge from two note combinations – called intervals – and then move onto chords utilizing 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. and 10 notes, or even more!
Here are just a few four-note chords to become acquainted with right way:
- C-Major-7 Chord: C-E-G-B:
- C-7 Chord: C-E-G-Bflat: A bluesy chord.
- C-Minor-7 chord: C-Eflat-G-Bflat: Sounds mellow and even slight depressed.