Today is a guest post! This is a topic I thought would benefit a lot of singers and songwriters, and I have a pro who was kind enough to do a full article on the topic!
Nadav Biran is a pianist of 10 years and an audio engineer. He is also the co-founder of catzaudio.com, a pro audio magazine focused on providing musicians with the latest pro audio news, reviews, interviews, and guides.
Improvising can be a huge help to songwriters when creating new melodies, and to singers who want to learn vocal scats or ad-libs. Here is a full breakdown on how to improvise using a piano!
Piano Improvisation for Beginners
You already know that improvising is spontaneously creating without preparation. Ironically, there is actually some amount of preparation needed to improvise well. Don’t worry, it’s easier than you think and it’s totally worth the effort.
To keep things simple, let’s say improvising on the piano is “making up melodies over chords on a song.” There are several genres of music where improvising is expected, like jazz, blues, or even folk music. No matter what genre you pick, you can improvise over it. If you think of music as a language and the different genres as dialects, then the vocabulary consists of the melodies you play. Whether you want to improvise over jazz or pop music, your musical phrases may differ slightly, but the same basic rules apply. In this introduction, we will cover some basic music theory and how it can help you start improvising. Then, we’ll give you some patterns to start out with and some tips to help you sound even better.
First, pick a song to improvise over. It could be your favorite song, a song you enjoy listening to, or even a song you’ve written. Once you’ve picked your song, make sure you have a solid keyboard or digital piano to work with.
If you don’t know the chords to the song you picked, use a search engine like Google to find them. You can Google search for the title of the song, followed by the word “chords.” For example, “Mary Had A Little Lamb chords” should locate a lyric sheet with chords written underneath.
Second, let’s look at what’s actually happening when someone improvises. You’ll usually hear the chords of the song playing in the background by other instruments (or in their left hand) while their right hand plays a newly created melody. When you’re listening to someone who is skilled at improvising, you will usually notice a few things about their playing:
- It’s somewhat easy to sing, or melodic.
- It’s something you’ll remember later, and it’s usually the rhythm.
- It might contain patterns or follow a theme, including repetition or a motif.
An Easy Lesson in Music Theory
One of the main things that makes improvising sound good or bad is how closely the new melodies follow the chords. That’s where knowing a few chords, scales, and patterns can help. To keep this concise, let’s say you already know the letter names of each note on the keyboard, and that a three-note chord is called a triad. It will help if you know your major triads.
C – E – G
Db – F – Ab
D – F# – A
Eb – G – Bb
F – A – C
Gb – Bb – Db
G – B – D
Ab – C – Eb
A – C# – E
Bb – D – F
B – D# – F#
Once you know the Major triads, it’s easy to figure out a minor triad. All you do is take the Major triad and lower the middle note by a half step, or one key on the keyboard. Let’s look at the C Major triad above. The notes are C – E – G. To make this a minor triad, lower E by one note or half step on the keyboard. Now you have C – Eb – G, a C minor triad. For reference, below are all the minor triads.
C – Eb – G
Db – Fb – Ab (Fb is actually E)
D – F – A
Eb – Gb – Bb
F – Ab – C
Gb – Bbb – Db (“B-double-flat” is also A)
G – Bb – D
Ab – Cb – Eb (Cb is also B)
A – C – E
Bb – Db – F
B – D – F#
Putting It Together
Almost every song is made up of major or minor triads. You can learn the other two kinds of triads and more advanced chords when you’re ready. When you look up your song’s chords, you’ll see chord symbols written under the lyrics that look something like this:
C Am F G
In this example, we have a C Major triad, followed by A minor triad, an F Major triad, and finally a G Major triad. If you see something like C7, just play a C Major triad for now.
To begin improvising, you only need to know the first five notes of each major scale. You will use these notes in patterns to start playing over your song.
The first five notes of Major scales (1, 2, 3, 4, 5):
C, D, E, F, G
Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab
D, E, F#, G, A
Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb
F, G, A, Bb, C
F#, G#, A#, B, C#
G, A, B, C, D
Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb
A, B, C#, D, E
Bb, C, D, Eb, F
B, C#, D#, E, F#
Here are some patterns to use in your right hand with the notes above.
How to Use Patterns
- Look at each chord of the song, like Eb
- Find the five notes in the Eb Major scale above, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb
- Apply one of these number patterns with those scale notes
- Pick any rhythm you like and play the notes from the correct scale
Let’s try the first pattern below (1, 2, 3, 5, 3, 2, 1) on an Eb Major chord. The correct melody notes would be Eb, F, G, Bb, G, F, Eb.
Use these patterns for ideas on Major chords first. Feel free to make your own patterns when you’re ready.
1, 2, 3, 5, 3, 2, 1
3, 5, 3, 2, 1
1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 1
5, 4, 3, 5, 1
4, 5, 3, 2, 1
Again, to play over minor chords, just lower the third note of each Major scale by a half step (one key lower on the keyboard).
The first five notes of minor scales (1, 2, b3, 4, 5):
C, D, Eb, F, G
Db, Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab
D, E, F, G, A
Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb
F, G, Ab, Bb, C
F#, G#, A, B, C#
G, A, Bb, C, D
Ab, Bb, Cb, Db, Eb
A, B, C, D, E
Bb, C, Db, Eb, F
B, C#, D, E, F#
Tips for Sounding Your Best
I recommend you play with the recording at first. If vocals are distracting, find a karaoke or instrumental recording of the song. Start by playing the appropriate Major or minor scale with the number patterns above. Then add variations to the patterns by changing how long you hold each note and how fast or slowly you play the patterns over the chords.
If something is easy to sing, it will probably work when you’re improvising. It might help you to sing what you want to play before playing it.
Record yourself improvising over the song and then listen back to what you played. Pick out the best things you did and keep them. Pick the spots where you wanted to do something particular but it didn’t come out right. Then try to fix it the next time you play.
Take your time and enjoy the process of listening, experimenting, and collecting ideas as you learn how to improvise. It can take some time before you feel comfortable improvising over any song. Commit to working through one song at a time so you absorb what you’re learning. When you’re not sure what to play, your ear is the most effective guide.