I've just watched this cute video of a girl improvising a piano song based on a 4 notes which are taken randomly from a hat.

I did a quick search on the internet to see if this is a common concept, and I didn't find anything related.

If I'm not wrong, this technique is used for creating poems (where one would extract few words and then start composing based on that).

Now I'm just thinking: should there be any rules for the notes in the hat?

I guess an improvisation can be started based on any notes, but I'm just wondering if setting up some rules on the number/kind of the notes from the hat would make the improvisation easier to compose (or sound better).

  • I like the idea of two notes - or even one... – Tim Feb 9 at 13:56
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Clearly certain notes will make improvisation easier than others for most people, although a well trained musician could make something interesting out of any combination of notes. A great number of tunes (virtually countless) are comprised of the notes of the major scale, particularly C,D,E and G, for example.

The reason for that is that those notes are related to one another in ways that facilitate building melodies from them: They readily form natural sounding, consonant melodies. So it would also be easier to improvise a tune from them that sounded "good" to most people's ears. (Arguably, every tune originates as someone's improvisation on a certain group of notes, although usually more than just 4.)

On the other hand, if one were to use for example C,C#,F and B, improvising a pleasing, coherent tune would be more challenging, since those notes relate to one another in more dissonant, 'difficult' ways.

In the end, I suppose it's all relative: An accomplished jazz musician, or for that matter a very talented but untrained person could/would make something interesting out of anything. It all depends on who is trying to make the tune, how much time is given, and what's called an acceptable result.

So I'll qualify my answer: Deem it applicable to an "average" person with little or no musical training and 5 minutes of time to produce something.


I've just watched this cute video of a girl improvising a piano song based on a 4 notes which are taken randomly from a hat.

It's not really a new idea, although that format is "cute". Some jazz musicians have been doing essentially that for quite some time. Legend has it that the great jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, in order to challenge himself, would sometimes build a solo by playing a few random notes, and then connecting them together into a coherent theme that fit in with the tune he was playing. Similar stories have also been told about Charlie Parker.

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    Just tried C, C#, F and B. Surprisingly it ends in something nice, in F#m. :) – Ionică Bizău Feb 9 at 9:28
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    @IonicăBizău I wasn't sure if that has a name - It has a name: Jazz. ;-) – Stinkfoot Feb 9 at 10:38
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    @IonicăBizău - yep, F#m is a good vehicle for those four notes! There was, some time ago, a radio show where contestants had to say the names of three or four notes, and the muso - Steve Race, I think, then had to come up with a tune that was fairly well known. Sort of a corollary to your idea. – Tim Feb 9 at 14:01
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    @Steve - No argument. It's all relative, and no clear guidlines have been given here, as I explained in the answer. BTW, never underestimate your own talent! That's the best way to hold yourself back. "Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"... "Shoot for the stars and you'll hit the moon"..... – Stinkfoot Feb 12 at 0:24
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    @Stinkfoot , I am not saying that I can't compose music. I actually got a compliment from a couple of professional (film and computer game) composers on my ring tone, to which I was pleased to reply that I had composed it myself. But it definitely doesn't come easy. – Steve Feb 12 at 9:10

I was an unwilling performer in a demonstration-lecture by the late Elliott Schwartz long ago. One piece involved shuffling a deck of instruction cards and dealing them out to us 4 or 5 musicians. We were to follow instructions on the top card, then every X seconds go to the next card.
I never really saw the point.

By comparison, inventing a tune based on a few specific notes has a long history. JS Bach wrote one on his name -- fortunately for him the German naming system has "B" meaning our Bb, and "H" our "B-natural"

  • Reminds me of the number of times Dmitri S(c)hostakovich used the DSCH motif in his works (for D, Es = Eb, C, H = B). – Dekkadeci Feb 9 at 15:57

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