For improvisers: do you always have a set of possibilities for what you’re going to do next and make a choice as you’re playing?

Do you think for instance “I’m in this scale so those notes will sound good with the chord I’m playing and those other notes will be good for ornamentation or if I feel like going on a short trip outside of the scale”?

Sometimes when I improvise I take a guess at some notes because I don’t have the whole scale in my mind and more importantly sometimes it’s maybe good to forget the scale for a moment because notes outside of it can sound good in that context as well. But I guess it would be perfect to do that in a controlled way and not just press literally any note hoping it’s going to sound good...


I'm thinking more in terms of chord tones. Those notes are going to feel right, and generally keep the listener happy about which tune is being played. Too many outside notes may be very clever, but once the listener has lost the thread, he probably thinks the improviser has too...

Just thinking scale notes can work, but a lot of tunes, particularly jazz-wise, will contain non diatonic chords, which obviously then means using the parent scale notes won't be too successful.

After meandering for two or four bars, it's good to hit at least one chord tone at a crucial point - like the first beat of that bar.

As far as planning is concerned, there probably is some going on, but it's not always at the front of my mind, after a while, a sort of auto-pilot takes over, although listening to everything else happening at the moment can influence what comes out.

A really nice trick when playing with others is to 'trade fours'. You play lead for four bars, then someone else takes the next four. It keeps both on their toes, and makes listening so important, to be able to continue the thread the other player's left for you, and to leave a good thread for him to follow next.

  • What is a diatonic chord? May 20 '18 at 17:14
  • A chord which is made up exclusively from notes in one particular key. In C, C, Dm, Em, F, etc. whereas Dmaj. or Emaj.in key C would not be diatonic, although they would quite likely be found in a tune in key C.
    – Tim
    May 20 '18 at 17:19
  • @JohnCataldo diatonic chords are probably the most important fundamental aspects of music. if you don't know them front backwards and sideways, then I'd start there. non-diatonic usually appear in jazz, but 99% of music uses diatonic chords.
    – user34288
    May 21 '18 at 18:21

I think the goal is to be able to play the instrument like you whistle. When you whistle, you can go into a song that's playing and you'll know the key automatically. As an example, listen to a street performer and if you whistle or hum along you'll notice you automatically get into the key without consciously thinking of the scale or chords.

So when you improvise it should be the same. You shouldn't be aware of what you're doing just "whistling" whatever's in your head. You should know what it'll sound like before you even play it. This however only comes with years of practicing scales/chords and jamming to backing tracks and doing all the "conscious" things to the point where you can let the unconscious handle it, then that's the pount of mastery. and then you just improvise same way you talk, without consciously thinking about rules of grammar.


I have always considered myself more of an embellisher than an improvisor. Meaning, I had an arsenal of licks I would weave in and out of tunes. Playing this way was about 90% without thought other than I knew I wanted to get from point A to point B and sometimes considered what I would use to accomplish that task. I would also have a lick in mind and set myself up to execute it. This is way too much work . . .

Now that I am older and wiser, I find myself improvising more and depending on my knowledge of music theory to achieve a form, a mood, a climax rather than just letting loose a blizzard of meaningless 32nd notes.

My suggestion is to learn your licks that can fall out of your hands without thought but, break them down to their base value. Passing tones, upper and lower neighbors, superimposed chords, scales and arpeggios. My big four beat licks are now just alembic snippets I use to create "dialogue."

Save yourself some time and improvise on theory, not licks and patterns.


Yes and no. An awareness of the possibilities is what makes you able to improvise. But it may have become largely subconscious. The downside is that you can end up relying too much on a set of stock 'licks'. Everyone does this to some extent - it's why you can listen to a recording and pretty well know whether it's Brubeck, Peterson or Waller. But you don't want to be TOO predictable.

And, of course, we all know the times when we've hit a 'wrong one' and turned it into a feature :-)

Don't forget to spend time (probably MOST time) learning to play songs beautifully with the original tune. Improvisation is fun, but over-rated. If you can't think of something at least as good as the original melody, why would anyone be interested in hearing you play it?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.