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This is 3 questions in one, so it might take a slightly involved answer, or some good links.

I'm a very good classical pianist, but I skipped theory entirely in my early days and learned to play well by reading sheets and listening to better pianists online playing the same piece I was learning, then carefully emulating their sound.

But now I've made some friends who like to improvise and do it extremely well, and I'm at a loss. They usually take the low register and establish a beautiful rhythm going, while I take the upper register and toy around with a melody. I have no trouble keeping time with them, and I sometimes come up with very pretty melodies, but then here's what happens: I hit 2-3 notes and in my head I hear a melody continuing with the pattern of those 2-3 notes, but then I don't know what notes I'm hearing in my head (I don't have any sort of pitch, not even relative, I'm pretty much tone-deaf), so I can't continue the melody in real time because I don't know what keys to hit in order to create the notes I'm hearing in my head. How do you learn to know what notes to hit? Right now I just have to guess, and sometimes I get it, and sometimes I don't.

Problem two: while toying around with the melody, I'm pretty much trapped in single notes and octaves. Obviously in all the pieces I've played there are a million different chords of 2,3,4,5, even 6 notes, and they sound beautiful. But whenever I try to hit one, it just doesn't sound right. How can I learn which ones achieve what kind of sound and when they'll belong and when they won't?

Lastly: The way we do it is my friend picks a key and shows me what the key is, then I'm careful to only hit notes in that key. For instance, if she said F major, she would show me that B is flat (because I don't know my scales by name), and then while improvising I would be careful not to hit any other black keys and not to hit B natural, which are not in the scale. But I know from all the other pieces I play that you don't have to stay inside the scale in order for it to sound right-- obviously pieces have sharps and flats and naturals outside the scale all the time. But whenever I try to do it while improvising, it usually just sounds dead WRONG, instantly. But every now and again, by chance, it sounds so right. How do you know when it's okay to go outside the scale?

Sorry for long question!

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You need practice to develop your ear. There are no hard and fast rules that say "you cannot play this note here." -- IMHO anyway. –  JimR Mar 25 '12 at 23:51
You say you ask 3 questions here, but all 3 are really related. It all comes down to knowing the basics of the chord progressions and playing around that. See @Gauthier's answer for details. –  awe Mar 27 '12 at 6:39

7 Answers 7

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Learning improvisation is a long trip. Most people start with one of two ways:

  • going by ear, just play something that fits. Try until you think it's good.
  • going by chords. Learn what tones fits the chords in the chart. Try until you think it's good.

Soon you notice that it's not either one way or the other, it's a combination of both. Good improvisers are able to go either ways.

If you want to go by ear, you need to know how the chords sound. You need to know the song's harmony by heart. Then you need to know how to play the notes that you are hearing in your head. To help you do that you can:

  • learn to play the melody by heart. The melody of a song is a good starting point for improvising, you can start by playing variations.
  • listen to the chord progression many times. Either with a play along recording, playing yourself, listening to known recordings. You must really have the chord progression everywhere in your brain.
  • listen a lot to known recordings of the song, and try to pick up phrases and licks that you like. Watch also closely on which chords these licks work.
  • train by singing short melodies first, then trying to play them on the piano.

If you want to be able to play by the written chords, you can:

  • learn to hear the chords by just reading them. Just as you can hear a melody by just reading the notes on a staff, you can learn to hear chords in your head by reading them. Play lots of chords, and concentrate on recognizing chord progressions. To do that you need to be able to play chords, but I'd say you need that anyway.
  • learn the theory. You have to know your scales by name. You need to know what scale is associated with what chord. You need to know the key signatures of scales. Luckily, different chords can be associated with one scale. For example, Fmaj7, F6/9, Gm7, Am7, C7, may all be associated to the F major scale. Learn that and next time you see the sequence Gm7, C7, Fmaj7 you'll know you can play F major.

When it comes to your second problem, do you mean improvising several tones at the same time? It would be wise to concentrate on improvising a monophonic melody first. That said, you need to learn how to spell chords (see above, learning what scale is associated with what chord) in order to know what combination of tones you can play on a given chord. It should be obvious, you need to know how to play the chord in order to play a chord based on it.

To your last question. It's good that you can improvise if given the current key (here F major). There several reasons for other notes than that of F major being played in a song in F major:

  • The current chord is not one of F major. Even if a song is in F, the chords do not need to be all based on this scale. For example if you take the song "Yesterday" in C: the first bar has a C chord, the second has Bm7, E7. The song is still in C, but the chords in the second bar have F#, C#, and G#. It could sound weird to play natural F, C or G in that bar (not that it's impossible, but still). In short, accidentals may be associated with the current chord, rather than the main tonality.
  • The notes are passing notes, not really in the chords but ok in the context. The tone sequence G C D D# E may be played over a C7 chord, although D# is not in the scale associated with C7 (this sequence is a transposed version of the song "Straight no chaser", a blues).
  • There are other ways to play notes that are foreign to the current chord, but I believe this is much more advanced (some people manage to play 4 bars of D major on a Cmaj7 chord and to get away with it, but you really need attitude).

Now that you can play in the key of F, you should ask your friend to play a blues in F. Ask her to show you the scales associated with a 12-bar blues (F7, C7, G7), train on these scales, learn in what order they come and how long they last. Play along with her while she plays the chords. Or ask her to play the F blues, listen to the chords many many times, listen to many blues based songs (there are incredibly many), and play to her chords by ear.

One good thing with blues is that you can play a single scale on the whole chord chart (the blues scale) and it sounds nice. But if you want to match chords, you can go on and learn which tones "fit" on one chord and not the other ones. Playing these tones at the right place makes things a bit more interesting.

As a side note, if you hear that some tones you play do not sound good, then you are not tone deaf.

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+1 Amen! Start with Blues! –  luser droog Mar 26 '12 at 21:37

The ear training is important. Additionally, one thing nobody mentions which is very important, is to learn how harmonize and reharmonize those passages - how to fit chords and substitute chords to the melody - and then to improvise using those chord tones.

There is also such a thing in music known as avoid tones, which is a fancy way of saying "tones that plumb don't sound right": see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avoid_note The concept described in this article can be extended to apply to any type of chord, including altered chords, non-diatonic chords.

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Some more possibly helpful tips for soloing/improvising:

  • Train yourself to hit root notes, thirds or fifths that always sound good, when you know there are chord changes. Good thing to practice this is the blues.
  • Similarly, when you break out of key or go chromatic, at least when you're learning, always return quickly. Should be a like a flourish or accent.
  • Start with something simple (1 or 2 chords) then progress.
  • Build a vocabulary of "licks" in different styles - then experiment, hook them together in different ways, invent transistions,...
  • As you emulated the technique, why not try to emulate the soloing styles of other musicians?
  • Don't forget rhythmic variation and dynamics.
  • It should be obvious, learn theory.
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You can get a lot of traction in this direction by learning just the intervals (ie. just "relative" pitch). Train yourself to know the sound of a half-step (minor 2nd), a whole-step (major 2nd), minor 3rd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, augmented 4th/diminished 5th, perfect 5th, minor 6th, major 6th, dominant 7th, major 7th, and an octave. If you know what each "jump" sounds like and how to play it, well, that's a complete protein!

One of the shortcuts for educating your apparatus (your musical brain) in this ability is to pick out examples from the songs you know where that interval is emphasized. The typical example is "Here comes the bride" (demonstrating an upward jump across the interval of a perfect fourth). Or the beginning of Beethoven's 9th (demonstrating a downward jump across a major third). In psychology terms, you fill-in a catalog of recepts (organizing your existing percepts) to bolster the concept. Be sure to learn the names, too; so you can communicate about it.

You can learn the minor and major 9th and 10th, too. But melodies rarely jump even that far.

And remember the jazzers' motto: If you make a mistake, play it twice!

Another thing to practice that may help is, when you imagine a little melody, re-play it over and over several times until you have it in a loop or holding pattern. Then you can examine each note and its transition to the next without forgetting the very melody you're trying to analyze.

This is called harnessing the earworm.

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+1 for "harnessing the earwig" - I'll have to experiment with that. –  NReilingh Mar 27 '12 at 6:10
If you've ever had a song "stuck in your head", then you have this ability (at least, potentially). –  luser droog Mar 28 '12 at 5:28
Oops! An earworm is a melody stuck in your head. An earwig is an insect. –  luser droog Apr 23 '12 at 22:26

Here's three of my own experiences that may interest you: I recently attended an improvisation workshop with Pete Churchill, a jazz musician. The main point that came across was how you need to be utterly grounded in the melody before you can improvise. Then, when you play or sing, the melody runs in your head in parallel automatically as your voice or fingers improvise. This is certainly my own experience. I've gradually learnt to improvise by at first straying only slightly from the melody on songs that I know very deeply, such as "Happy Birthday", or very simple children's songs, like "Baa Baa Black Sheep". It's always better to sing first, then use an instrument. It also sounds like your musical education as a child wasn't complete in all respects (mine wasn't), so some musicianship lessons from your local Kodaly Academy or Kodaly methodolgy teacher would really help embed a sense of pitch, leading on to deeper internalisation of intervals. Kodaly himself said, "A child who plays an instrument before he sings may remain unmusical for a lifetime. That is why we encounter so many skilful pianists who have no idea of the essence of music." I'm certainly not suggesting you are unmusical, only that you sound very accomplished in the formalities of piano yet a bit lacking in early grounding, so catching up on basics you missed earlier could really free the music within. I've been gradually treating myself to some teaching in rhe Kodaly method for a few years now and it's helped a great deal.

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In addition to following the excellent answers here, you could get copies of David Baker's "How to Play BeBop" books. They provide a very structured way on how to improvise, that might suit you. They teach you what scales fit what chords (at least in the BeBop idiom), and what notes in the scales to play at which beat in the bar as well as how to handle non-scale notes. They also contain a lot of examples or "public domain" phrases that you can incorporate in your playing as a spring board to start off from.

For other styles of music than BeBop Jazz you might want to get other sources, but I believe these books still would be valuable ground to have covered.

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Some would say BeBop is the Ultimate Jazz idiom. I, for one. –  luser droog Apr 23 '12 at 22:31

As an amateur musician, I find that for me these sorts of problems are commonly rooted in a confusion between theory and practice. Music theory is a technique for de-constructing music, but doesn't work so well for con-structing music. To me musical performance or improvisation should be much more of an experiental "in the moment" process, vs. an analytical one.

Of course I don't achieve that ideal as often as I'd like. My biggest obstacle is my impatience, because the only way to transform explicit analytical knowledge into "felt" implicit knowledge is practice, practice, practice.

With that said, I have found 2 approaches useful for getting better at improvising:

  • Pick a particular genre of music, and use your "analytical mind" to distill foundational patterns (scales, rhythms, chord progressions, melody, ...) via listening and/or research. Then practice these over and over until they become ingrained.

  • Play along with a random set of music from your genre (I use Pandora, so I won't know all the songs well, or at all). Here you use your ears, and try to decipher the melodies/chords you hear "in the moment" ... or play whatever sounds good to you.

Not sure if that is helpful?

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