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I am a self-taught piano player, played for about five years with shorter and longer breaks. I've never had any formal education, don't know chords or music theory. What should I do to learn piano improvisation?

I don't expect it to go smoothly and easily. I just don't know where to start, and where to take it further. I am interested in long-term learning, links to good literature would be nice too.

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I think one of the easiest ways to improvise is to find some easy left hand accompaniment which allows you to play about anything with the right hand while still sounding at least ok. Here are a couple examples:

    • With the left hand play the loop Eb, Gb, Ab, Bb, maybe about 1 note/second. I think the second lowest Eb on the piano sounds best.
    • When you've played the loop a couple times, continue and also start playing any melody on the black keys with the right hand. Keep the left hand pulse steady.
    • With the left hand play the loop D-A (as a chord), G-D. Again maybe 1 chord/second.
    • This time play the melody on the white keys.

To make it sound more like "real music" try to at least have some breaks in the melody and try varying ideas, like how fast, how high, or how loud you play. Maybe take some simple rhythmic and/or melodic pattern and use that for a while. You can also every now and then play a white/black key which you "shouldn't" play just to see how it sounds. Usually it will sound good if you accentuate it a bit (so it doesn't sound like an accident) and then resolve it by playing a "legal" note after.


One way to improvisation is to learn a lot of recipes, and one way to create them is to just experiment. Theory of music in general, like knowing the basic physics of sound and the basics of how we make sense of music, will help your experiments go in a fruitful direction. Reading a book on composition or taking a composition class will probably teach a lot of useful knowledge in this. Studying and (actively) listening to lots of music will also help, and knowing the theory of the music you're studying will help you do it better. This is also a great resource for recipes. If something sounds good, take it into your vocabulary and then experiment to see what you can do with it. So in short theory is something that'll help you a lot. It's not required, though, as I believe for example many early jazz-musicians didn't know much or any theory and still managed to just play.

Theory is one side, and another is that you need to practice. You have to improvise a lot to learn to improvise. The two recipes I gave will get you started. Since these are quite easy, you'll be able to develop some important "universal skills". One is that you'll have time to listen to what you are doing and anticipate what you're going to do. You can also concentrate on creating music on the spot. By this I mean that you can concentrate on phrases, rhythm, dynamics, articulation and all that without also having to think about what the "correct" notes are. Don't underestimate this; even if you play everything "correctly", if your music is monotonic or chaotic or in some other way unmusical you just won't sound good.

If you think this is too easy or restricted you get 22 more recipes just by transposing these two. Try combining them. Some will sound natural after each other, some will sound wrong, and some will sound like they could work in some places but not in others. For example if you do the first recipe starting from Eb, then go to Ab, that'll sound pretty natural. Take A instead of Ab, though, and you have something which could be pretty effective when used properly. Theory will explain some of these but not necessarily all.

You get even more by changing the rhythm of the base loop. Or maybe play the notes twice as fast, repeating each one of them. Or play them twice as fast without repeating any. Maybe in the first loop add a short A before Bb, or G before Ab, or maybe something else. You can do surprisingly much with just these two basic schemes and some imagination! And by experimenting with these two you'll also develop skills in experimenting in general.

Maybe this still isn't what you are after but it won't hurt trying.

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Thanks, but I don't want a 'quick cheat' - I want to know what I should learn, it might be a long learning period, to start getting better at it. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Jan 16 '13 at 20:08
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If it sounds good it's not a cheat. Another thing is that there's no "should" in improvisation in general. If you want to improvise in some specific style then that's a different question, and you should clarify what style you're interested in. –  nonpop Jan 16 '13 at 20:11
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What I meant is that this gives me a ready recipe. I want to get knowledge and skills which will allow me to create such recipes. It's hard for me to believe that there are no universal skills and knowledge one should possess to be able to improvise better, regardless of the style one wants to improvise in, but if I am wrong, please correct me. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Jan 16 '13 at 22:21
    
@Maurycy: Fair enough, I've expanded my post trying to take this into consideration. –  nonpop Jan 17 '13 at 7:53
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You need to learn how to how to harmonize songs - which means creating chord progressions that fit the melody - and then for each chord you need to learn which tones are appropriate, and which aren't. The normal "chord-scale" theory is flawed in this respect because it does not discuss that.

I posted a reply on a piano forum which goes into it a little more: http://www.pianoworld.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/2046910.html#Post2046910

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You should practice ear training in order to be able to play what comes to your mind. You probably also want to study some chord and scale theory in order to get an understanding for what will "sound good" and why.

You could perhaps get these books:

  • The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine - it teaches you everything related to playing jazz piano including chord and scale theory.
  • How to Play Bebop 1-3 by David Baker - it teaches you how to improvise in the BeBop idiom.

They will be helpful even if you are aiming to improvise within other genres.

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I recommend watching this video from Gary Burton, in which he gives a great explanation about improvisation, that should probably be a good starting point.

Some key thoughts:

  • Improvisation is like talking: you sort of follow some rules (a grammar -- and there is a grammar for music), but the rules aren't all that enforced and may be flexed when you may know better. Their purpose is just to help you to communicate.
  • Your goal as improviser is to become fluent at the language, know what words (notes, chords, scales) are available for you to use and when.
  • There are a few scales that are the most common, and that you are usually expected to be familiar to. Others build upon them. In other words: you don't need to learn all the 50 scales in some Jazz book to be a good improviser.

Having said that, I heard Bobby McFerrin say once that, a lot of times, improvising is just to keep moving. Sometimes that may require a bit of courage, because when you are starting, you may feel you sound very bad (like when you are learning a foreign language and starts trying to speak it).

It's just part of the process, so keep going! :)

Also, if you read sheet music, you may try to have some fun with the software Impro-Visor.

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Improvisation has two major steps: "Hearing" the music, and playing the music. That is, you need to know what sound you want out of your instrument, and then you have to go make it. This means you need to listen to plenty of diverse music. No one tip is unique to all forms of music--improvising in a medieval style is vastly different from improvising in jazz, and is different from improvising in pop music. There is some overlap, but playing Beethoven endlessly will not do much for your attempts to render the latest Lady Gaga song. So, step one is listen to lots of music--not just the music you like, but music you don't like as well. Learn why you don't like certain types of music, and why you DO like others. Dissect each piece you listen to. Boil it down into the good and the bad.

Step 2 is figuring out how to replicate the music that you like. This is probably going to be the more time-consuming part; there are a LOT of keys you can press, and you need to figure out which combinations sound good. Don't be overwhelmed. Do take it slow, and start with the melody. Then add the bass. Then try to add the chords in. Be very faithful to your source material; even learning how to play things you don't like is useful information (it tells you what NOT to do).

This process will take a long time and will sound bad when you first start. The "sounding bad" phase typically passes very quickly, and is driven in large part by you wanting to sound like a professional right off the bat. Realistic expectations are your friend here.

After you get as close to your source as you can, start altering the music a little bit; see what you can alter to make it more appealing to you. This process is immensely frustrating when you start because you have no idea how to replicate what you're hearing. It's practically the same as learning Italian by trying to do as the Romans do. But as you practice, you'll get better and you'll get faster. I generally only need 5 minutes to hash together a quick sketch of a new song (Merton in the 3rd video did it in 5 seconds), and I can refine it endlessly until I'm happy with it. Note that this process requires absolutely no knowledge of music theory, just dedication and patience.

That being said, music theory is immensely helpful, because it gives you a vocabulary to work with. It's kind of like an English-Italian dictionary. Not everything you hear will match up exactly to what the music theory books say, but even knowing the names of musical elements helps immensely. It also lets you (relatively) precisely communicate with other musicians about what you're trying to do. I won't touch on specific resources, because the topic on how to learn music theory has been handled on this site previously, and the most useful resource to you will depend on the style of music you're most interested in playing. If you don't know where to start, pick a book at random; the information you get will be useful. In any case, no matter where you start, you won't get all the information you need in one place.

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I always seem to spend more time listening to the music I link to than actually writing the answer... –  Babu Jan 17 '13 at 0:09
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Unless you're naturally gifted like Mozart or some Jazz Legends, you should catch up on music theory: Know your scales, your chords, your circle of fifths etc.

The effect of this is to bundle the complexity of music and put it into a higher level of abstraction. You don't have to think about each individual note because you know your chords, and you also automatically get an idea of which chords sound good in succession, whereas knowledge of the scales gives you a workable range of notes from which to create your melody.

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