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I came across the following video on YouTube in which two random people play the same piano together and to me it sounds really amazing. It's something that I couldn't do myself if someone started randomly playing together with me.

Video:

How do people do people do this? What would one need to know to improvise with a complete stranger that is already playing the piano?

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    This question is incredibly broad, and very few people have the skill to improvise with any stranger playing anything on the piano. I only watched the very beginning, and I do notice a few things that the first pianist does (for example playing in a C pentatonic scale) that make it easier for others to join in.
    – Theodore
    Aug 17 '21 at 21:52
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    Also, maybe to give a bit of context: this is in France and pianist #1 is playing variations around a theme by ludovico Einaudi that was in the ost of a movie which has a real huge success there (Intouchables). Just to say that because of that, the theme is known by most people, or was, a few years ago, which also helps to build a improvisation.
    – Tom
    Aug 18 '21 at 5:18
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    One important point: There are many different improvisatory genres, and they operate in different ways. This example is tonal and follows a repeating progression of chord "changes." Even if Pianist #2 didn't already know the song, he could have picked up on this pattern after listening for a bit, and then it becomes a question of how one improvises over a chord progression. Free improvisation would be another matter, as would other genres like jazz, "jam" rock, or Indian classical music. Aug 18 '21 at 15:21
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    I've watched bits of this video and it seems like it's IV V vi, repeated over and over. Once both pianists come to this understanding, it's not too hard to improvise over this. It reminds me of a lot of anime songs, since the royal road progression uses IV V III vi.
    – Stardust
    Aug 18 '21 at 17:33
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    -- oh that's a typo, I meant it reminds me of IV V iii vi. Though, III works too. They're the V chord of the minor key.
    – Stardust
    Aug 18 '21 at 17:58
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Not knowing your particular background or skill level the question is incredibly broad. From the point of view of an experienced improviser what's going on here is fundamentally very simple.

Pianist 1 is playing around in A minor. If you don't have the ability to recognise a pitch from memory (perfect pitch, I don't have it and it's a very rare ability) then it will take some little initial guess, or watching the pianists fingers for the notes they are using, to determine the key. A bit of aural skill helps here, as in after a few seconds listening you hear they are going to a home chord of some kind of minor tonic. Pianist 2 looks at pianist 1's hands and see's there are no flats or sharps used, so it must be in C or A minor (or some mode, but that would sound 'different' and is less likely to be the case in the majority of simple jams like this). Next up he determines it sounds minor, so it's probably A minor. Although this is easy to determine with a bit of practice, especially when you are hearing someone play diatonically, if there was any doubt in pianist 2's mind that it was an a minor tonic and not another minor chord from our diatonic list of chords a quick peek at pianist 1's hands and what keys he is playing would answer any question right away, it all looks familiar, uses all the white notes and ends on an A minor, it's in A minor.

Pianist 1 is playing two chords to reach the final one. Given that we are probably in the key of A minor (down to seeing the lack of black keys pianist 1 is playing) now a bit of ear training will quickly tell you that the approaching chords are from the same key as the home chord, and a bit of knowledge of chord theory will tell you that the chords that reside under the tonic of A minor, stepwise, are F major and G major. This sounds a little abstract, but as almost all music obeys, to some degree, the patterns found in the diatonic major/minor scale remembering the order of chords (and how they sound) becomes second nature, as you have to recall it so often.

So we are left with pianist 2 having identified pianist 1 is in A minor, and playing the two chords below it to lead up to the tonic.

Although I don't have perfect pitch and couldn't accurately guess that it was in A minor without looking at the video or grabbing an instrument it's very easy to hear that we are going 'IV V vi' in some key. This may be familier to you, but if not you just need to look into 'chords in a major scale' and 'relative minors', then spend a bit of time playing around until you start to hear the relationships and recognise the movements we have here. In time you can listen to a chord sequence and make a pretty good guess at what's going on before even playing a note.

After that, it's simply 'variations on a theme'. The two pianists are now feeding off each other and reacting to the confidence built each time the chord sequence is completed in such a way that they are able to experiment a little, confident that they can predict the next chord based on the repetition. Then you can just try out different techniques. Pianist 2 is accompanying, broadly, and varies the way he plays the chords with arpeggios, a bit of stride playing and some melodic playing. Pianist 1 is then free to worry less about the chord accompaniment and focus' on melodic playing around the A minor scale. He plays it safe, sticking mainly to minor pentatonic playing with the odd passing note, following the basic rules of beginner improvising ie. stick to strong chord tones, resolve nicely each time the sequence ends etc. Playing it safe is absolutely fine in this kind of impromptu jam.

Developing your own feel for how to improvise a melody is something with no strict rules, it's on-the-spot composing in some way, but with a bit of practice you can find some ways that make your ideas sound more lyrical, and more musical. Very broadly these can be;

Don't start on the 1 of each chord all the time.

Don't start on beat one of each chord all the time.

Try and construct short phrases, like sentences, that have a beggining, middle and end.

Repeat ideas to build up a sense of some kind of intent, develop a phrase once it's established.

These are a very simple starting points, I could carry on writing arbitrary ideas like this for days, and in the video the musicians don't follow even points 1 and 2 of these very much at all. They make up for it by following points 3 and 4 quite nicely, and after all this is a jam at a train station between strangers, not a composed piece! It's a form of very simple improvisation demonstrated very well in an odd, impromptu setting. I don't mean to sound derogatory to the musicians, it really is a good example of how you can get something basic going between two stranger-musicians with no forward planning.

I would suggest just playing the chords, F G Am Am (as they are here) in your left hand and just noodle in the right hand on the white keys and you'll get something similar. Once you have gotten used to that you can explore how to embellish it in ANY direction, from additional notes, chord extensions, different keys, different techniques etc. The biggest thing to learn will be the sound of each note choice on each chord, get used to how some sound simple or sombre, some sound exciting, some sound floaty, some sound beautiful. Build up a dictionary of what intervals sound like to you. After that it's phrasing of melodies in the right hand. Once you are satisfied with that stuff and want more then you just add ever more complex chord sequences, new sounds and techniques until you get to jazz and beyond!

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Accompanists tend to mainly think in terms of chord sequences rather than individual notes. Guitar of course is primarily used today as an accompanying instrument, but piano was and is also regularly used. This is the core skill required for playing with other people and for improvising.

Experienced players can identify the chords played by looking at a player's fingers, but also from a root chord can identify other chords by ear based on their interval from the root. Some sequences like "F G Am" or "C G Am F" are very common (the Axis of Awesome videos on YouTube demonstrate a lot of these), and experienced players will be highly familiar with them and already know riffs which work within those structures.

After that, we're into generally how to improvise. The most popular way is to start with the pentatonic scale, because the scale doesn't form unpleasant dissonances for any intervals. Add on tricks like octaves, arpeggios, and runs from regular scales. (This is why you practise scales and arpeggios, so that you can pull them out when you need them.) Then go your own way with different voicings of chords, passing notes, and so on.

Improvising is a skill which needs practise. It's largely ignored by the classical world, in a traditional (and in many people's opinion mistaken) view that you shouldn't be improvising until you reach higher grades. Of course the end result is that many classically trained people at higher grades simply forget that it's allowed to play music that isn't on the dots, or find that it's so hard to go back to sounding like a beginner that they don't want to.

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    +1. Improvising should be parallel to learning from the dots in every practice session - from the start.
    – Tim
    Aug 18 '21 at 7:54
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I will offer my advice, and use a lot less vowels and consonants.

  1. Be fearless. Step up, step into it, and go for it. Whatever IT is. Whatever it is is a whole lot better than sitting back and wondering how it would be to jam and improvise with a stranger. What have you got to lose, after all?

  2. Use whatever you have in your experiential tool kit, and don't be afraid to explore the edges. Only you and the other guy will know if you mess up. The audience certainly won't, trust me!

  3. Play with joy, and play with complete and utter abandon. The only way you will suck is if you hold back, become timid, and worry about what people might think.

That's all I have. Have fun with it.

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    This is probably the most important advice of all
    – ex nihilo
    Aug 18 '21 at 2:48
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    This could work, but chances are, with just playing random stuff - which is what you're advocating, it will sound like neither of you know what you're doing. There's a heck of a lot more needed - experience, knowledge, for starters. Been there, done it, and it works in < 5% of cases where neither knows what to do, or react to the other, or can listen well - and play well.
    – Tim
    Aug 18 '21 at 7:51
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I'm not a piano player, but a hobby guitarist (classical trained as an adolescent + e-guitar in later life). Since I started out purely classical for many years, especially during my "formative" years, I was playing 100% from musical notes. When I transitioned myself to more contemporary playing styles, I found that I can easily learn the scales and was able to play solo improvisation - but only if someone told me which scales are the correct ones, and then it also usually sounded quite boring; and was more stressful than enjoyable to me.

Some ways which worked to improve this for me, which might be applicable in general:

  • Learn some music theory. It does not need to be full-scale jazz-level theory, but at least a little bit; figure out how and why the usual scales and chord progressions work. Really, at least for your run-of-the-mill blues it's not a lot to learn, and not particularly hard either.
  • Learn exceptions to the music theory. For example, in the guitar world, there is a standard pattern for the beginner-level pentatonic scale. Turns out that there are many notes not on that scale that work very well to create and release tension, especially if used as a small sliding or bending motion instead of a full-blown note. One can easily experiment with these things alone and build a repetoire of interesting variations.
  • Learn "licks" - on the guitar, these are a few notes or finger movements strung together; not a long phrase, just a tiny little figure. Basically just a little trick or cheat that sounds good, and gives you kind of an anchor point if you run out of ideas while playing. If you listen to a lot of solos, you notice some familiar bits all over the place. I assume the same exists in the piano world, not sure how you call it though.
  • Sing along, wordlessly. Don't only play scales or chords without any intention, but try to get some actual melodies together. Can be humming or just "thinking" as well if singing is not your thing. (Unrelated to improvisation, a famous example is one of the recordings of the Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould, were you hear his humming frequently on the record).
  • Play excessively slow. Play so slow that you can think about every next note before playing it. Try to imagine how it will sound before you play it. This is the same as learning anything on an instrument - starting too slow is usually better than too fast. Eventually, the "decisions" will move to your fingers instead of your brain and you'll automatically speed up.
  • Listen to and play a lot of music in styles that are open to improv. Rock, Blues, Jazz etc. - maybe find iconic players you like and try to play along. Eventually, your fingers will have so much material to draw from even without conscious thought that to an uninitiated it may sound like you're a gifted improvisationer, while in fact you're mostly stringing phrases together... and if it then turns out that you hear someone play exactly that song in a train station, you can also just play along.
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What does one need to know? Quite a bit - which is why the 2nd pianist managed a heck of a lot more than the 1st !

I don't doubt that if p2 had changed key, p1 couldn't have followed. P2 was watching and listening (not just looking and hearing) what was being played. He worked out, both by ear and by eye, what the basic chord sequence was. From that, he could play along, even in a rudimentary fashion. For that, he knew where the notes were for that key, what chords could be/were used, and what bass line and top notes would be likely to fit.

P1 knew that sequence, and pretty well kept to what he knew well. Only after several minutes did he feel he could experiment at the top end, and using mainly pentatonic notes - and certainly no black keys, given key A minor - did have a good try, probably feeling totally supported by p2.

So, being able to recognise chord patterns, being able to know which notes work best over certain chords, being able to map out the chord sequence being played, knowing which notes to avoid (very important), being aware of where they were in the bar and sequence, thus knowing which out of several available notes fitted best, having a sense of timing, to stay with, and complement the other player, and listening constantly, to accomodate any off-timings the other guy might make. Those are all skills which I need as part of open mic nights in a backing band, and all come into (and out to) play when someone just starts playing - exactly like what happened in the video. Best way to start doing this is to play along with the radio, or favourite tracks, starting with songs you have a clue about - key is paramount - which then gives the list of likely chords, which then gives the list of available 'safe' notes, and so on...

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