Improvisation is the musical equivalent of having a conversation. It’s therefore fundamental to being able to truly understand and play music at its best. However, for many of us, improvisation can be a very challenging and can often feel like stepping into a conversation that we understand almost nothing about. However, if you jump in and give yourself time to learn, you would be surprised what can come out of your voice or instrument. Here are a few music improvisation techniques you can use to get started.
Learn Your Scales
Our ears organize sound in particular ways whether we know how to name them or not. Some ways are more immediately pleasing or “consonant” and others are more challenging, harsh, or “dissonant”. Most of us hear music in a tonal way – meaning that our ear organizes all the pitches we hear in music around one central pitch called a tonal center. The tonal center is what gives us the pitch we use to describe keys – the “A” in “A minor”, for instance.
In western music, we usually organize the way we hear the rest of the pitches around the tonal center with scales. Scales are just a set of intervals used to create a specific order of pitches around a tonal center. The major scale is the most common example. It uses whole and half steps to organize six additional pitches around a tonal center.
Because our ears usually hear tonally, it is immensely helpful to develop a strong understanding and facility with scales – whether you sing them or play them. You can think of scales as a pool of notes that will work when you are trying to play over a set of chords. They are the foundation for the rest of how western music approaches improvisation (aside from a discussion on rhythm).
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Understand Harmonic Context
Once you know what scale, or set of scales, are useful for a particular song, the next step is to understand the harmonic changes that are going on. Harmonic changes are defined with chords. Chords are made up of three or more notes (usually from the key the song is in). When a chord is playing, the notes it is comprised of sound most consonant or “right”.
This is enormously helpful on many levels. First, even if you know the scale you can play during a song, if you don’t intentionally play with an awareness of what notes are in the chords, your improvisation can sound lost and confused. Second, many of the strongest riffs, arpeggios, motifs, and other improvisational elements come straight from chord tones. Think of the famous guitar riff from “Crazy Train” which is built around F#-, A and E chords.
Once you know the scales and harmonic context you are working in, you can use what may be the most powerful music improvisation technique of all: the motif. Motifs are short musical ideas or phrases used to built more complex phrases, melodies, riffs, and much more.
Motifs are powerful because they function like a topic statement in an essay or debate. If you know exactly what you want to talk about, you will leave out everything that has nothing to do with your points and use everything you know brings your point home.
The same is true in music. Great improvisers and composers create and explore motifs all the time. Probably the easiest place to hear the use of a motif that we all know is the introduction to Beethoven’s 5th symphony. But motifs are all over the place. For instance, the three note tapping pattern in Eddie Van Halen’s solo from “Eruption” is played also a three-note motif played over multiple harmonic changes – which is part of why Van Halen’s tapping sounds so powerful.
This obviously only scratches the surface of what is possible in the work of improvisation. If you are interested in learning more but have found most theory books or courses unhelpful, I hope you will consider checking out an online music theory course I put together with Dave Kusek called HIT Music Theory where I use today’s music to explain college level music theory in a practical, meaningful way for today’s musician with real life examples. If your are interested, check it out at www.HITmusictheory.com.
By Daniel Roberts