Improvisation is defined as “an activity done without prior preparation”. To improvise is to make up something on the spot. Improvisation in music is the act of creating and playing new music without preparing it in advance. It involves creatively using the available resources at hand, such as musical instruments and your listening skills to compose music spontaneously.
There are a number of ways people approach improvising music. However, the most important thing to know is that improvisation is not a magic gift and it is not necessarily an advanced musical skill. Did you know that in some music schools young children are taught to improvise as soon as they start learning music?
The biggest barrier that currently stands between you and improvising is not instrument skill or music theory knowledge or a gift of “talent”. In fact, the biggest barrier is simply the belief that improvisation is something that “other musicians” can do and you can’t.
In this article I want to give you three basic foundational blocks you need to put in place before you start learning to improvise. Then in the next article we’ll look at some simple ways you can start improvising.
It is important and useful to be aware of some improvisation basics which can help you get started and begin your journey to perfecting this skill. Think of these as the foundation which will let you begin to improvise.
1. Learn Some Music Theory
Although music theory does not have a very significant role in live performance of prepared pieces, it can be really helpful for knowing how to improvise. Before you start improvising, get a basic understanding of musical elements like scales, harmony, keys and notes. Understanding how different elements of a musical piece function together can greatly help you in music improvisation.
Here’s one example: with only a bit of music theory, you might know that to improvise well in a key you need to play the notes from that key’s scale. This is a good starting point.
Learn a bit more music theory and you could understand how chord progressions work, and start to choose your notes to better fit the chords of the song you’re improvising with. Suddenly your improvisation will sound much more musical and powerful.
Take your music theory one step further and you’ll start to understand which notes you can use to create moments of dissonance against those chord progressions and really start to take the listener on a journey.
Don’t be afraid of music theory or limit your musicality by limiting how much theory you’re willing to study. You will be surprised at how each new insight from music theory advances your musicianship and improvisation abilities.
2. Know a Variety of Musical Styles and Genres
Knowing and embracing the sound of different types of music will help you to not be restricted to imitating just a single song or genre. This will improve to a great extent your creativity when improvising your own music. You can incorporate different sounds, scales and musical ideas into your new improvisation to create truly original music.
In some genres like traditional blues it is common to stay very tightly to the norms for that genre. However in today’s world of crossover genres and remixes and musical fusion, the pieces which really stick out tend to be the ones which draw from a variety of genres and styles.
If you want to really stretch your ears in a fun and interesting way check out our series on active listening.
3. Personal Motivation
The first step in transforming any new idea into a reality thing is by believing in that you can. This applies equally to improvisation. The ability to improvise music is not some magical prowess bestowed on a select few by a muse above. Rather, it is a skill that can be learned through practice.
If you can string together a few notes on your instrument, make up some words of lyrics, hum a little tune to yourself, create a new bass line from a fretboard pattern or just play around with notes and chords on the piano, you have all it takes to improvise music!
Here’s the key thing to know: every great improviser started out terrible. It’s true! So when you begin to experiment with improvising don’t expect it to sound wonderful. In fact, don’t even expect it to sound musical.
Start small, start simple, and great improvisation will come in time – if you keep your attitude right!
A positive attitude is essential in being a successful improviser and musician. You need to be motivated, imagine yourself doing great things with improvisation and then work towards making it happen! Every successful musician has a story. You can start creating yours today, because if you believe in yourself you will surely become who you want to be.
If you’ve ever worried that the pro musicians are somehow a “breed apart” and don’t ever suffer from the same doubts you do, just take a look at this interview – you might be surprised!
Improvisation is not a magical ability or an advanced musical skill. Even beginner musicians can learn to improvise and enjoy creating music spontaneously. Put these three foundational blocks in place – and next time we’ll look at 6 simple ways to start improvising today!
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