I'm writing a blues song. There are a few 2-bar sections in the verse where there are no vocal parts and I want the piano to improvise around a specific notated part (it's kind of, but not exactly, an answer phrase to the preceding vocal line). So, say, I've got a sequence of three chords and I want to say "in place of the second chord, you could also use this chord" or "before the third chord, you can add the following fill-in note" or "this lead-up can be replaced with a triplet" and so on. How do I do this, or is it assumed that the performer will improvise around the notated part without being explicitly told "improvise here using the following variations"?

  • Need to know whether the optional chords are extensions of the originals, or completely different, as the rest of the players will need that info. too.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 8:46
  • @Tim I'm not sure if you're referring to chords as in a chord progression, or chords as in groups of notes that are played at the same time. The chord progression doesn't change, but there are, say, two or three alternative groups of notes that are played at the same time which can be used in some places. Like for example, the piece is in C and in one place there's a group of notes that are played at the same time consisting of a G and a C, but one could also use a G and an Eb, or a Bb and an Eb. Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 18:20
  • Chord extensions refer to additions to the original 3 or 4 notes of a chord, as in 7ths, 9ths, 11ths et al. The notes you mention, on C, are all 'blue notes', but would more likely be used as individual notes than in a chord. Having said that, C7#9 will include Bb and Eb (aka D# = #9). All blues stuff. Gb could also happily feature, in note form or as part of the chord.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 18:43
  • @Tim I tend to use them in pairs of notes that are played at the same time as it gives a fuller sound. I guess one could use just the top note. Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 11:59

6 Answers 6


Good improvisers will not play over another soloist or vocalist, but if they can see, on their parts, that there's a gap to fill, they'll probably go for it naturally, just like a drummer waits till the end of a sung phrase, and puts a fill in while the vocalist takes another deep breath.

  • Yes, these are 2 bars between vocal lines, meaning that there is a gap. Currently I've notated something that I think is a suitable fill (fitting the way I want the piece to sound). Should I leave this there, or should I remove it and leave just a blank space? It should be noted that I've also notated accompaniment parts during the vocal lines, rather than leaving it up to the pianist to "comp". Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 16:28
  • Make the bits optional. A good player will use them as he sees (hears!) fit. Some will play exactly as is, others will put their own slant on things. Doing this at least gives options. Others who play it may just want to play it as writ.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 8, 2017 at 16:34
  • That's what I'm trying to do, "make the bits optional". What I'm asking is, how do I "make them optional" in the sheet music? How do I say "this bit is optional, you can either use it as it is written or you can vary it as you feel"? Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 8:30

Sounds to me like you should just write out what you want to hear. Improvising by definition is "in the moment composition". In the "old" days, I did a lot of studio work and the composers would either want to hear something specific (which is what I am hearing you say) or want to hear whatever I came up with.

If you give the player tips on what notes to play it essentially handcuffs the process of improvisation. I remember a session once where the writer wanted me to end a solo on a particular note. I would get into the solo and invariably screw up at the end because the realization of ending on a particular note was like being waken up from a dream or "taken out of the moment" so to speak.

If you have a good idea of what you want, why not just write it out. Nothing wrong with doing it that way.


You could just write "ad lib" in that part. Perhaps with a suggestion of the harmony or rhythm but that may be obvious.


Either write what you want, or write 'fill'. The player WILL use appropriate material. If you're not sure of the player's ability to improvise, notate something appropriate but add 'or ad lib'.

  • Good idea, but isn't "ad lib" generally assumed to apply (mostly) throughout a blues piece? Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 8:31
  • Yes, an alternative answer would be "don't bother, the player will do it anyway". But this might be aimed at the education level, or there may be other instruments who need telling "piano, not you, takes the fills in this section".
    – Laurence
    Commented Mar 9, 2017 at 12:15
  • I can state as a fact that there aren't any other instruments and it's not aimed at an educational audience. However the piece may be performed by individuals who do not have much jazz/blues experience, or by individuals who want to re-arrange the piece to include other instruments (such as bass guitar, drums, etc.). Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 13:52

There's plenty of good material here, but I didn't see this mentioned, so pardon me if I didn't catch it in some other answer.

If you really need to hint the players to this extent, I'd suggest that you use cue notes, and perhaps an expression to say what you want ("echo", "answer", or similar) for the first of your two-bar phrases. That's a strategy I would recommend if you're writing for students, who might not be as experienced with jazz/blues as the pros are.

For succeeding repetitions, "etc." or "ad lib as before" would probably suffice.


I think you either notate what you want or allow them to choose.

I would just write slash bars with chord symbols and a written instruction for what you want (e.g. "fill lightly behind vocal" or "improvise freely"). Then trust your musicians ;-)

You can write "suggested fills" but that just begs the question - do you know what you want or not? Quincy Jones says "always leave some space for God to walk through the room". Sounds like good advice to me.

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