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I have a friend who recently spent around seven hours of his day playing on the piano by himself. While around three hours was spent actually practicing, the other four were spent doodling or improvising.

I've researched the problem without much luck. What are your thoughts on this? Can simply playing whatever comes to mind on a piano have any benefits to technique, understanding of chords and scales, performance, or anything else regarding one's ability to play the instrument?

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    Why are you discouraging his creative work? Improvising can be expected to improve one's ability to improvise. There is more to music than technique. – replete Mar 20 at 21:07
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    Three hours of actual practice isn't bad. Playing is not the same as practicing, but if it doesn't cut into your practice time, there's nothing wrong with enjoying yourself by playing things you already know and like, or even just noodling around. – Your Uncle Bob Mar 20 at 21:09
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    He plays a mix of classical and light-jazz. – Victor Resnov Mar 20 at 21:19
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    I've played piano for about 11 years - and improv is probably the thing I ma most grateful for learning. Being able to spice up any song you play, as well as simply picking up a chord chart and making it sound like a fully scored piece is really handy, especially for playing in a band, taking requests or just jamming. – Woodman Mar 21 at 9:01
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    Why is this 'a problem', and why is it 'your problem'? – Strawberry Mar 21 at 17:02
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I do perhaps see where you are coming from - 7 hours a day certainly is a big investment, and there can be a risk in doodling (and, for that matter, noodling) in that your fingers follow the same patterns again and again, simply reinforcing those same patterns - which might make you better able to follow those patterns, but little else.

On the other hand, if you can avoid that pitfall: Improvisation can teach you a lot about composition; it can enable you to find the 'sound in your head' more quickly (whether in conjunction with existing knowledge about scales, or just giving you another more instinctive way to do it); it can generate interesting ideas for later composition; it can provide just as much of an opportunity for applying fingering techniques as any other type of playing.

Ultimately, every activity is going to exercise some musical 'muscles' more than others. Sight-reading pieces from score doesn't reinforce your skills at playing by ear, or help you actively practice your composing skills or generate any of your own ideas. Playing scales doesn't teach you much about arranging. Doing harmony exercises doesn't help your physical stamina. But they all have their plus points too. Taking a step back and doing a cost/benefit analysis isn't a bad thing!

As to how you'd avoid doodling that doesn't drive improvement - one way is to have something of an aim, such as improvising in the style of a certain player, or doodling using a certain key, or trying to find a way to move from one key to another. Of course you might argue that this isn't doodling at all, but targeted practice, and therefore not the thing you were querying the value of in the first place. Ultimately the important thing is what specific skills you are exercising, rather than locating a semantic line between 'practice' and 'doodling'.

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    Your answer seems to assume that everything the piano player in question is doing must be geared to practicing their skill. But if the piano player just enjoys improvising, practicing 3 hours a day and then having fun for the other 4 is it's own reward! – Kevin Mar 21 at 20:00
  • @Kevin you are right - but only because I'm replying to the expanded form of the question as phrased in the OP: "Can simply playing whatever comes to mind on a piano have any benefits to technique, understanding of chords and scales, performance, or anything else regarding one's ability to play the instrument?". I myself love a noodle for pure fun on the guitar or bass now and again. – topo morto Mar 21 at 20:08
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I think you were too harsh. Improvisation is itself a useful skill, especially so if your friend has an interest in jazz. Trying new things can also help with composition - I'd imagine most music doesn't spring from the composer's head fully formed. You may find an interesting melody or rhythm when just noodling around that you want to keep for later. And above all, if your friend spent 4 hours playing the piano for his own enjoyment, that's a perfectly legitimate reason in itself. Intensive practicing can be draining, there's almost certainly some mental benefits in taking a break and just having fun!

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    ... and the very reason we make and listen to music, is to have fun. Even the classic musician plays for the enjoyment of their audience. Otherwise, they won't get paid for their art. +1 for that! – cmaster Mar 21 at 19:37
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What your friend is doing is absolutely essential. Your friend is developing deeper and deeper layers of understanding music. He's going to places and seeing things you don't see. I suggest you start playing by ear and improvising and exploring the world of music too. It's not a guided tour, it's an exploration.

Babbling is a stage in language acquisition. (Wikipedia)

You need to babble with notes, rhythms, scales, chords, chord progressions, tones, dynamics, melodies, motifs, modulations, fingering patterns, timbres, instruments, ensembles... Higher levels of abstraction are built on lower levels, and you need to discover them and experience first hand how they work.

Some amount of systematic goal-setting is good in the long term, but you said your friend did some "actual" practicing. A few hours is nothing.

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    +1, OP is the one wasting his time – Nacht Mar 20 at 23:12
  • I understand what your saying. I was just curious as to if improvising for a significantly longer time than traditional practicing methods, if you will, is okay or not. Also, when I say improvising, I am referring to simply sitting at the piano playing random chords and melodies. I am not talking about listening to other songs and mimicking certain elements. – Victor Resnov Mar 21 at 0:38
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    @VictorResnov I really mean that you don't see what your friend is seeing. He's a part of a feedback loop: (1) idea -> (2) action -> (3) feedback, repeat. At every iteration his functional model of music is refined by a tiny bit. You're an outsider, not a part of the loop, so your model of music does not get refined. – piiperi Mar 21 at 13:59
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    @VictorResnov You know, I'd wish I had improvised much, much more. You don't learn being creative without exercising your creativity. And that's exactly what your friend is doing. Exercising his creativity. He'll be able to create the music that you'll never be able to think of if you don't follow his example. – cmaster Mar 21 at 19:43
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"Doodling" sound a bit dismissive. "Improvising" sounds more serious.

It would help to know more about just what this playing involves.

But, if we assume that this playing is musically interesting. I think it is valuable. But that value will depend on what your friends goals are and they go about practicing.

Surely everyone will want to have good technique, but time spent improvising is about learning how to develop new ideas spontaneously. You will concentrate on other things beside technique. Things like recombining and varying musical patterns.

It seem important to note many good players cannot improvise, because they didn't devote time to developing that unique set of skills. Isn't that a shortcoming for a musician too?


Jazz will be the obvious case for piano improvization, but there is a tradition of improvisation in classical style too. Take a look at these for starters...

  • Baroque improvisation is something sadly forgotten in the so called "classical music" performance tradition, as I perceive it, and the alleged pursue of authenticity actually makes them further from the spontaneity that Baroque music once had. – Aminopterin Mar 21 at 10:08
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    @Aminopterin, I share that feeling. I think it's part of the reason the general public think classical music is boring. Also, I was using the term "classical" in a loose sense to more of less cover the era when figured bass was in common use. – Michael Curtis Mar 21 at 12:41
  • I take your point, and there may be some segment of the "general public" that finds classical music boring for this reason, but a large segment of the general public also finds jazz boring. – David Bowling Mar 21 at 13:11
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If you're practicing, then doodling or improvising is perfectly fine! It actually can be a form of practice because it helps with coming up with new ideas and freeing your hands more on the piano.

Also, depending on the type of improvisation, it can be almost just as valuable as practicing for real. If you're able to incorporate scales and triads and other technique into your "doodles", then that can have some benefits for technique. Also, improvising on a song you already know or one you're still learning can have benefits too as you're getting more comfortable with the song. Also, improvising with a new genre of music like jazz if you're classical or doing ragtime can help you with learning different types of music.

The only "doodles" that aren't valuable are playing Hot-Cross Buns or something like that that's way too easy. Otherwise, you're doing good! You can't be strictly serious all the time on the piano, or you'll learn to hate it. Have some fun!

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Your friend is definitely not wasting his time. Really learning how to improvise (which is a building block toward being able to compose music) takes an enormous amount of time. Most of the better composers I know spent a lot of time "doodling" on their instruments before moving on to a more structured process of composition. If your friend is interested in jazz or in composition, then he is on the right track.

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Once there was a guitar player “doodling” in a music studio when an engineer walked by, heard the doodle, and was immediately impressed – so much so that he had the guitarist record it.

The guitarist? Eddie Van Halen. The doodle? The legendary neoclassical shred “Eruption”.

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As someone who designs artificial intelligence (AI) for a living and has dabbled in composing music, I think I can offer a different perspective.

Think about an auto piano. It can flawlessly play complex music, because it was trained or programmed to. But it does this without any understanding of music theory. Likewise, a human can memorize scales and learn to play music simply by building muscle memory, but memorization is not the same as understanding.

The goal when designing an AI is to give it the ability to acquire a deep understanding of a topic on its own, rather than relying on rote memorization. A common way to do this is to have the AI generate its own music, and by doing so, it learns something about the underlying aspect of music composition.

Similarly, when people noodle around on an instrument, they learn "what sounds natural". They are essentially learning music theory without any formalization to their understanding. Noodling might teach someone about chord progressions when they don't even know the names of the chords - they just learn which patterns sound good after other patterns. It is a perfectly acceptable way to learn.

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IMO there should be a balanced program for each practice session, in which you start by posing some restriction to yourself, and gradually loosen it. For example, you first practice scales for several keys, and several figures transposed in several keys. Then you play iReal Pro and play along, utilizing the figures you just practiced, whether consciously or not. When you have "turned on", play some of the standard pieces from the Real Book and render solo passages as you see fit, without help of tracks. At this point, you are likely to be good spirited and full of inspiration, and play freely and record.

Listening to what you played also helps. You may think your improvisation to be "inferior" than great Jazz pianists, but you may not realize the deep reason. Try to find that out, for whatever styles you are endorsing. In the beginning, most likely you can't, since you have not developed taste sharp enough.

My advice is that, when learning everything, you must first be constrained in some way, and that, somehow paradoxically, helps your imagination. You avoid the problem that you are "stuck" in the same level and repeating wrong or mediocre patterns, by adding some "external force" to drive you out. When you force yourself use some figures, you learn new ways to exploit them. When you are determined to play within some harmony progressions, you may incidentally find some progressions that you don't like before actually sound good, and so on. And as you remove the restriction, you get more creative than before. This too can be said of four-part harmony, counterpoint exercises, and probably other field of expertise as well, I guess, like mathematics, but I have been digressing.

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