The beautiful thing about music is that its interpretation knows no boundaries. Sure, it helps to learn basic scales, but there is no specific set of compositions or rules that anyone must know to make music. This rings especially true when it comes to artists who enjoy improvisation. While the sky is the limit, any musician knows that talented improvisation doesn’t pop out of thin air.
Although improvised music feels totally unstructured, musicians who are strong improvisers are often grounded in a solid background of music knowledge – from chord structure to the basics of music theory. If you’re an aspiring musical wizard, serenader, or songwriter, read on to get started in mastering the art of improvising with music.
What Is Music Improvisation?
What many people may not realize is that music improvisation actually follows a pattern. Even playing notes and chords “randomly” will produce an intrinsic pattern, or rhythm, that creates the music. Understanding attractive and unattractive musical patterns from the past gives the improviser an advantage, and makes the musical outcome more pleasing to the ears.
Since playing any instrument – in any arrangement – will create music, the key is understanding which patterns sound good and which don’t.
Can You Improvise in Music as a Beginner?
Yes. In fact, some experts believe improvisation is a vital part of training, from the very start of learning a musical instrument. Improvisation skills sharpen fluency in musical patterns and instrumental sounds as a student progresses through the technical training aspects.
Understanding and experimenting with improvisation keeps students in tune with what occurs naturally in music; helping their brains make connections between the instruments, the sounds we hear, and the way we can control those sounds.
What Goes Into Learning Music Improvisation?
There are various theories on how instructors can best “teach” music improvisation, and some experts argue that it isn’t exactly a learnable thing. Jeff Pressing, a 20th-century music scholar, broke down music improvisation mastery into five phases:
- Embellishment – This step of improvisation has soared in popularity in the last century, through popular music. The singer or player starts by performing an already-known melody, and then goes off track, adding new notes or “embellishing” the ones already in place. The roots of this technique lie in pre-Baroque music; when composers would build new creations from already-established and popular ones. By introducing students to a familiar melody and then giving them the chance to change it, even slightly, teachers can establish a base for improvisation.
- Patterns and models – There are intrinsic patterns and rhythms in music that occur again and again – even in less structured genres, like jazz. Teaching these patterns, instead of exact tunes, boosts improvisation learning. One popular example of this concept in action is the Aebersold “riff” principle used in teaching jazz. Musicians learn stylistic patterns instead of common chords, opening the door to creative improvisation that actually fits the music around it. There are other non-jazz music methods that favor patterns and models over notes on a page, for better improvisation skills later on.
- Problem solving – Once musicians have a base to build their improvisation skills, they can practice problem-solving exercises. In this step, a teacher does not model what to do, but rather presents partial music, and has students “resolve” it (complete the piece). These exercises are designed to evoke emotional reactions that will then shine through in the music itself.
- Play-by-ear –This step asks musicians to tap into what they already know about music in order to make more of it. Students do exactly what it sounds like – listen to music, either live or on a recording, and then try to replay it by ear. This pushes musicians to move beyond what they’re told to play, and find the notes themselves based on what they hear. When students can “hear” what they want to play in their heads, they will be able to find the notes to translate their thoughts, leading into successful improvisation.
- Free improvisation – This unstructured approach is most closely aligned with what people picture when they hear the term “improvise.” In this fifth and final step, musicians find the music without guidance from a teacher, and without the preconceived notions of someone else. The difference between students who try this step first, and students who have a base knowledge before reaching this unstructured portion, is that the music the latter students produce will have a heightened level of flow and sophistication. The background knowledge makes a difference in the end result – which is why even musicians who long to play “free” of constraints can benefit from improvisation lessons.
How Is Improvisation in Music Mastered?
You need to understand how music works to truly get a handle on improvisation. Here are the important things to know as you get started on your own path to improvisation mastery:
- Knowledge is good – A basic understanding of where notes land in a scale, and how they interact with each other, is vital for improvisation success. Even if you don’t follow all five steps that Pressing defined, knowing scales and chord structures – major and minor chords, pentatonic ones, and even blues tones –will make improvising much easier. When you know which notes belong together, you can quickly anticipate what to play or sing next. This is especially important if you plan to sing or play with someone else. Enroll in music lessons to master the scales, and then use improvisation to test yourself.
- Singing is smart – Even if you aren’t a vocalist, improvisation through singing is a great way to learn the skill. You don’t have to become a professional singer, but your voice box is an instrument – and it’s the most natural one you’ve got. Sing along with songs, and add your own vocal accompaniment, to get yourself accustomed to the right musical mindset. Once you’ve implemented improvisation with your musical instrument, continue practicing through singing. The combination of the two things will strengthen your ear for improvisation.
- Perfection isn’t the goal – Playfulness is the goal, not perfection. Improvisation is meant to sound fun, unstructured, and out of the box. You may hit some notes that don’t sound as great as other combinations, but remember that experimentation is part of the goal. Without that, you can’t find the joy in going off the books.
- Listening helps – Find famous improvisers in your genre, and listen to the way they do it. Jazz is known for frequent improvisation, but even classically-trained musicians stray from the notes on their page from time to time. Explore as many genres as you can, to get a well-rounded understanding; for instance, listening to rap music can help you better understand rhythm, and the way sounds rely on each other to create a final outcome.
Start your journey towards musical improvisation by getting a solid background in the structure, rhythms, melodies, and patterns of music. Studying music of the past – what worked, and what didn’t – will help you to understand the sounds and arrangements in music today. From there, you can go off the page, and create your own memorable masterpieces.