Approaching Improvisation

In this module, you will learn about the two fundamental approaches to improvisation and how they work together.

After completing this module: you will understand how to use the “Listen-Play” and “Play-Listen” approaches in your own improvisation.

Improvisation starts in your head. There are some important shifts to make in how we think about music when we decide to improvise. Below, you’ll find an excerpt from one of the lessons in this module that describes one approach to the improv process.

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  1. Introduction
  2. Listen – Play
  3. Play – Listen
  4. The Improviser’s Mindset
  5. Improvisational Freedom

If you love music, you’re probably hearing it in your head right now. So how do you take that internal soundtrack and transfer it to your instrument? And how do those great improvisers pull such amazing music out of their heads?

Continuing our language metaphor for improvisation, by the time a child has learned to speak, they have already put a lot of attention on soaking in all the words of everyone around them.

The ability to improvise meaningfully is closely related to playing by ear. Instead of hearing someone else’s music and duplicating it on your instrument, you are listening to the music in your head and bringing it out. The same listening skills can be applied.

Improvisation can be quite simple, but it is actually a quite complex human act, requiring a variety of musical skills. We can break these skills into two basic areas:

Step 1: Listen

As you develop your ear training skills, through intervals practice, solfa, chord recognition, and all the other ear training modules on Musical U, your ability to hear and know exactly what you’re hearing will improve dramatically.

The same goes for the music that plays in your brain. Once you have a clearer picture of what notes you are actually imagining, you’ll be in a much better position to find those notes on your instrument.

Step 2: Play

Of course, having the instrumental skills to play the awesome music you’re imagining can be quite another story. Just as with a language, the greater and more flexible your vocabulary, the more you can communicate. Great improvisers also aspire to know their instrument inside-out.

Yes, that means practice your scales! But practicing intervals and arpeggios are also hugely important if you want to create interesting melodies. Of course, great improvisation will make good use of tone, articulation, and every other instrumental skill you can think of.

That doesn’t mean that you have to be a supershredder before you even think of improvising. In fact, improvising all along your learning path will grow both your instrumental and ear skills. More on that in Lesson 3 when we discuss the “Play – Listen” approach.

Wait a minute! Before Steps 1 and 2 we need…

Step 0: Create

Ok, let’s rewind a bit and be honest here. Many musicians shy away from improvisation because they doubt that they have anything very interesting to say. What’s the point of learning to play the music in your head when maybe that music isn’t all that… interesting?

Well, the good news is that your creativity will increase with practice. And the two approaches of “Listen – Play” and “Play – Listen” work together. So if there’s no “there” there when you’re searching your head for what to “Listen – Play”, you can always switch to the “Play – Listen” approach.

The Improvisation Trifecta

Hearing music in your head, or “audiation“, takes the principals of active listening one step further: when you hear new music in your head your are actually creating and listening at the same time. This is actually the third part of the trifecta: “Create/Audiate – Listen – Play

Member Success

“For me the most helpful and interesting part of this module was to learn the mindset From “I’m playing the notes someone else chose” to “I’m playing the notes I choose.””
“Yes, I tried improvisation before. I recognize both approaches, listen – play and play listen, but I was not aware of what I was doing and there was no real integration of both methods. For me, the most interesting part of this module is the idea of the development of an improviser’s mindset, so I can distinguish between and systematically work on the necessary skills.”

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