I'm very stuck and quite frustrated at the moment. I have knowledge of scales and chords but when I sit at the keyboard, anything I improvise sounds really bad and I don't know what I can do to be able to improvise a good melody or piano piece. Can someone please help, I also don't know if I need to do more work other than the basic music theory covered to be able to improvise.


  • I've voted to leave this open. The question you link to @JacobSwanson, seems more about playing by ear, despite its title. – Bob Broadley Jul 12 '15 at 19:49
  • @BobBroadley The second answer seems to have a good answer. – Jacob Swanson Jul 12 '15 at 23:26
  • Fair point, Jacob. Several of the answers to the other question make good points about improvisation. But the question itself seems a little different to this one, to me. – Bob Broadley Jul 12 '15 at 23:44
  • Whoops, I closed as the wrong one and it deleted Jacob's first comment. The other question was: music.stackexchange.com/q/3010/28 – user28 Jul 21 '15 at 4:58

I found imitating others was a good way to get started for me. This way, you can create a large bank of ideas you can draw on and make your own. For me it was Billy Joel, Ben Folds, and Oscar Peterson. Nothing is original anyway. Everything these artists use came from something else and they evolve into their own.

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  • Yes, memorize models and then vary them. Even just changing the key is instructive, or making the melody go up instead of down at one point, adding an extra chord, changing the rhythmic pattern. Before long it is a new piece or style. – musarithmia Jul 17 '15 at 16:39

Here are some suggestions, and they are (almost necessarily) subjective:

First, I recommend being patient. If you don't like something, try to understand why, and see whether variations are more pleasing. Even if they're only a bit more pleasing, why? The answer doesn't need to be verbal; it's a matter of feeling and is personal to you. Improvising is often a bit like moving through a pool of water, finding warmer spots, and trying to move further into their center. The goal should be less to write a great song right away and more like looking through a box of trinkets and finding the most interesting ones to you.

Second, if you're unhappy because everything you're playing seems cliché, again ask why. Can you then defy the usual approach? You can deliberately throw wrenches into the norm and add unexpected twists. For example, play a C major followed by Eb major. Can you find something emotional in it? Can you overlay them with a melody which feels natural and ties them in a meaningful way? What chord would most likely follow? Can you make an unusual alternative somehow make sense? Can you add an otherwise "out of key" note to each of those chords?

And third, while chords and keys are very useful, they constrain you. You don't have to follow them, nor do you have to stick to 4/4. You can also look for inspiration in a source not normally considered music. I've been inspired by machinery and speech, for example.

Fourth, if you don't already do it, try recording yourself and listening back at a later time. Something may now grab you as these things sometimes do. You'll feel an emotional desire to hear some phrase again. Also try playing along with the recording, which is compounding your output so that you're seeding your compositional mind with itself (stewing in your own juices) rather than trying to fit in with others' thoughts.

Again, I want to emphasize patience, not just in one sitting but overall. After several sessions of improvisation you'll have a set of memories to draw on and this will grow as you develop that part of your brain. (Neural connections will literally be forming as you experiment and learn about how combinations of notes sound together and what you like and dislike, and why.)

I think that it's actually a good sign that you're disappointed, because it suggests that you're selective. Turn on the radio and there are many examples of artists who (in my opinion) should have tried a little harder and not gone with the first few ideas they had. You just need to hang in there and keep exploring until you find something you like even a little, pay emotional attention to that, and gradually build on it.

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Saying what you come up with sounds "really bad" is insufficiently specific for me to really diagnose what your problem is, or even really grasp how sophisticated your attempts are. So in absence of other information, I'm going to proceed on the assumption that you are a total beginner who cannot yet generate even the most basic musical phrase.

Knowing your chords and scales is helpful, but won't cut it. To improvise you need to know more theory of how music functions to come up with something that works.

There are sort of two dimensions of learning to improvise. One of them is conformance to style. For instance, if you want to be able to improvise jazz, you need to be deeply familiar with what jazz sounds like, what it feels like in your hands to play, and what its musical idioms are; you would be well advised to learn the theory specific to jazz.

The other dimension is general improvisatory skills: how to pick some musical concepts and work with them; how to remember what you just played so you can play it again; how to think quick enough to improv in real time without panicking and flailing at your instrument, etc.

A non-obvious thing about improv is that it can't really be learned in the general in the absence of a specific style.

If you don't have a specific style you're trying to learn to improv in, then it makes sense to pick one that's super easy to start with, to start building those general skills. Also, if the genre of music you want to improv in is particularly complex – you want to be able to duo improv cool uptown jazz with an upright bassist – it might also make sense to pick something simpler to start, and work up to it.

Also, please be aware: you are probably not going to be able to improv in a style of music that is beyond your ability to play either by ear or from a score. That is, if you can't play it when somebody else wrote it, you probably are not magically going to develop the ability to manifest it out of your imagination. For one thing, most musical styles have some technical demands. If you haven't met them sufficiently to play the composed stuff, that same limitation means you won't be able to play those figures in improv.

If you're looking for a super-super-simple style for the piano – and here I'm using "style" extremely loosely – try black keys only. Playing the black keys only gets you into the pentatonic scales, in which all notes are universally harmonious. There are literally "no wrong notes" to play together.

I do an exercise teaching expressive improv to non-musicians, including children, at the piano this way. I start with the following framework of rules: One hand only. One note per beat, seven quarter notes followed by a quarter rest (i.e. 4/4 time), indefinitely repeated. Set a timer: three minutes.

Once the student can manage that, I add the "rule" that the seventh note in each seven note series must be a ___ (any one note), but in any octave. Do the exercise with each of the different five terminal notes.

Next complication: two hands. Both hands need to conclude each phrase on the right terminal note, in different octaves.

Next complication: same exercise, but instead of one terminal note, alternate between ending on a ____ (pitch of your choice) and a ___ (different pitch of your choice), any octaves.

Next complication: sub-divide occasional quarters (not terminal ones) into paired eighths. At first, it will help to designate in advance which quarters will be subdivided. For people who don't have a lot of hand separation, this exercise can require a return to one-handed attempts at first.

Usually somewhere around here people start getting quite melodic.

Next complication: A different time signature, such as 9 eighths, a quarter, and an eighth rest (6/8). Start constructing exercises on all the other time signatures you want. Emphasis can be used to represent compound signatures.

If you're at this level of total beginnerhood, try this series of exercises and see if they help. It should become obvious as you do them how you can keep complexifying them to bring more and more of what you like, musically, into them.

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  • I'm very new to the music process. What I don't get is how you learn to develop compositions/melodies from scratch? What would be a good process to be able to improvise from knowing scales and chords? – MJohnson52 Jul 15 '15 at 15:29
  • @MJohnson52 that was your instructions. Seriously, go do this: Sit at a piano. Set a timer for three minutes. Count ||: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, rest :|| at a steady andante tempo over and over until the timer goes off. On every number play a random black key with your right hand. Just go do that. – Codeswitcher Jul 16 '15 at 22:02

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