How to Improvise on Any Instrument

Uncategorized Sep 17, 2021

You've probably already seen other musicians being able to come up with very good melodies on the spot while playing chord progressions on their instrument. In this post, I'm going to explain to you how this skill works and how you can develop it. Yes, you heard it right, no matter if you don't feel as having that innate gift, you can absolutely develop this skill. Keep on reading if you want to know how to do that.

Everything I'm going to say will apply to you independently from the instrument you play. So either you're an instrumentalist, a singer, etc. you are going to understand how to intuitively improvise and compose better music on any instrument.


How to improvise great melodies on the spot?

In order for you to intuitively improvise great melodies on the spot, 2 main things need to happen in your mind. You should:

  1. Establish the sensation of the key you're playing in.
  2. Form a precise mental representation of the chord progression that you're going to improvise on.

Let's now see why these 2 steps are totally crucial in order for you to improvise great melodies on the spot on any instrument. Then I'll explain to you how you can develop the set of skills that allows you to perform these 2 steps whenever necessary.


Improvisation and pitch perception.

We all know that melodies are made up of 2 main components: Pitch and rhythm.

Since it's rather unusual for people to have difficulties in understanding rhythm (and generally those issues go away with a bit of practice) in this post I'm going to take you through an in-depth look at how improvisation skills work from a "pitch" perspective only. The aspect of pitch is much more difficult for people to understand and master and that's usually what most improvisers and musicians struggle with.


What a "good melodic idea" is?

Before getting to the real explanation of how improvisation skills work, it's important to clarify what a good melodic idea is. There are a few important characteristics that are crucial for a melody to "sound good" and we should understand them at first. Then I'll explain how our "melodic improvisation mechanism" allows us to instinctively and effortlessly come up with melodic ideas that respect those characteristics.

DISCLAIMER! I'm not going to give you a recipe to write the best melody in the world, there can't be such a thing but I can say quite confidently that, if you're going to make a melody that respects the principles I'm next to explain, that melody is going to sound pretty decent.

So what are the characteristics of a good melody?

Well, first of all, a good melody includes notes that are in context with what the other instruments in the arrangement are playing. In simple words, the melody should be in the same key as the other instruments.

If the instruments are playing in one key and the melody is in a different key, that's going to sound really bad because the melody's notes will sound too dissonant and displeasing on a hearing level when played over the accompaniment.

The second important aspect for a melody to sound good is that the melody's notes should ideally follow the notes played in the chord progression. I'll explain it better:

You can think of the key as the biggest musical context and inside of this "biggest" musical context, we have smaller sub-contexts, which are the chords. So if we keep things very simple and we consider a very basic song that includes only one key, we are going to have seven chords that can be played in that key. We can consider these seven chords being sub-contexts of the key.

That being said, depending on which chord is playing in the arrangement, some notes of the key will sound good over it and others will sound more dissonant. This means that when you're coming up with a melody, you basically need to change the notes in relation to the chords that are playing. This is important for the melody to sound good over that chord progression.

As you can see there's an indissoluble relation between the chords that are playing in the arrangement and the notes that are going to sound good in the melody. Each chord has a set of notes that are going to sound good and other notes that will sound more dissonant, more displeasing, especially if sustained for a long amount of time. If you play them as passage notes, or if you play them very quickly, they won't sound "out of context", they won't sound "bad" but you should be careful when sustaining a note that's not going to sound good over the chord that is playing in the background.

So let's do a brief recap, we have 2 elements that we need to take into account when we are improvising or writing a melody:

  1. The key. We want to play notes that are in the same key as the other instruments.
  2. The chord progression. We want to play notes that are going to sound good over each chord. As the chords change the notes in the melody should follow.


From a logical understanding to an intuitive connection.

Okay, that's a very rational, logical, and mathematical explanation for you to understand the basic principles around what I'm going to say in the next section of this post. We don't want to face music from a rational and mathematical point of view. Our goal is to play music and be able to improvise a melody that comes from inside of us. This means that it should come from our creative side and we should avoid making any mental calculations in order to come up with it. Otherwise, it will feel like programming the melody as if it was a computer algorithm and that would completely take away all the joy from the process of making music.

So since improvising a melody should be a creative activity, I'm going to explain how the basic mechanism that allows us to intuitively, instinctively improvise a good melody works. So that you will have a better understanding of how you can intuitively, instinctively improvise a melody that respects the principles I've just explained above.


The Improvising Mechanism.

Let's make a step-by-step example of the ideal way in which our mind should work in order for us to be able to spontaneously improvise a great melody over a given chord progression.

  1. The first thing that is going to happen, as soon as we hear the chord progression, is that our minds spontaneously and instinctively understand the key of the song. That's something that might require some training in the beginning but once you're properly trained to recognize the tonic of a musical piece, this skill becomes very easy and totally effortless to perform. As soon as you listen to the piece you will immediately figure out which note is the gravitational center. That can be so much spontaneous that, in many cases, experienced musicians aren't even aware that they're performing this task since it becomes totally subconscious.

  2. After we have established the key in our mind, we can clearly feel whether or not a given pitch fits well in the key that we've established. So basically, this step allows us to intuitively feel when a note does not belong to the same key we have in our mind. That's because a pitch that's out of key will sound very displeasing on a hearing level, thus very, very noticeable too. This kind of basic ability to discern a note that's out of key from a note that's in the same key of the song is very important because it allows us to INTUITIVELY play and sing notes that are inside the same key of the song. Otherwise, if we sing or play a note that's out of key, we're going to immediately feel that the note is totally wrong and it sounds bad in that context.

    Indeed when you can properly establish the key in your mind, it becomes difficult for you to sing notes that are out of key because your mind is naturally and intuitively attracted to sing notes that belong to the key you've established.

    So mentally establishing the key of the song is the first very important step in order for our improvising mechanism to work properly, because it allows us to create an intuitive connection with the notes that are in key with the song so they are going to be our intuitive choice when improvising a melodic idea.

  3. The next important step is for us to form a mental representation of the chord progression. As we all know, some chords sound stable and other more unstable depending on which degree of the ket they're built on. What really matters is that each one of the 7 chords included in the key has its unique sensation (this sensation remains the same no matter the actual key we're considering: C major, G major, Bb major, etc.). So this ability to feel the sensation that each chord has, allows us to form a precise mental representation (mental image) of the chord progression. In other words, we can memorize the chord progression and the tension and rest pattern that is inherent to it. Thanks to this mental representation we can then predict the sound of the chords that are next to come as we improvise over the progression.

  4. Having a precise mental image of the chords that are next to be played allows our ear to be intuitively attracted to the notes that are included in those chords (which are the notes that are going to sound good over those chords). The principle in action here is very similar to the principle that allows us to intuitively sing or play notes that belong to the key that has been established (as we've seen in point 2). In a few words, the mental image of the chord (in the background of our mind) guides our "melodic ear" to instinctively sing or play notes that belong to that chord because those are the notes that will sound more pleasing, more consonant over the "mental image of the chord" (or over the chord itself).

If you follow the explanation included in the 4 steps above, you can properly understand how to intuitively improvise good melodic ideas over any given chord progression. This is the underlying mechanism at work when you see someone performing this skill. Let's now see what are the best approaches you can adopt in order to develop this mechanism and what approaches to avoid using.


How to develop your improvising mechanism?

As we've seen above, improvising skills are totally context-dependent. This means that your ability to hear the harmonic context (the key and the chords) and form a precise mental image of them is crucial for your "improvising mechanism" to work properly.

This is the real reason why only working on your melodic hearing skills, like you do when practicing intervals exercises, does not help you at all in getting better at improvising.

Musicians who can improvise very well don't think of intervals when performing improvisation tasks.

The crucial aspect to understand is that, as we've seen, if you want to create great melodies on the spot, if you want to become great at improvising, you need to have a very good mental representation of the chord progression that's included in the piece. In order to do that, you have to mainly work on your ability to properly internalize chord progressions, this means that you have to mainly train your harmonic hearing skills. Intervals exercises are atonal, non-contextual exercises that won't help you at all with that, they won't even help you with recognizing and establishing the sound of the key in your mind (which is a very basic task though).

So how can you develop this improvising mechanism?

Well, the first important thing to understand is that there's no magic trick. You can't develop these skills overnight. It's a gradual process. In this post, I've just simplified how these skills work in order for you to properly understand everything without feeling overwhelmed.

The reality is a bit more complex than that and, as you can understand, improvising skills are kinda advanced skills. This is to say that there is a set of required sub-skills that are crucial for you to be able to perform these skills in real-time without struggling a lot.

Let me make a parallel with reading skills so you can understand this point better: When learning to read, you basically chunk down the whole task of reading into smaller, easier tasks. You start by internalizing the sound of each letter, then the sound of each syllable, then you start reading words, and finally, after reading words feels effortless to you, you start fluently reading sentences. This way you gradually develop each sub-skill before becoming fluent. You can't do it the other way around.

Improvising skills develop in the same way. There are multiple sub-skills that need to be developed before being able to improvise great melodies in real-time. For example, we have pitch matching skills, short-term musical memory skills (I made a specific video on that, you can find it here), tonic recognition skills, tonic retention skills, the internalization of the keys colors, the internalization of the colors of the chords, and so on.

You basically need to internalize these sub-skills, so they become effortless and you can focus on making music, improvising, etc. without worrying about anything else.


Conclusion & Triadic Colors

Lastly, I just want to tell you a bit about triadic colors. Triadic colors are the basic concept that we use in our course to help students developing the ability to form the mental representation of the chord progression, which as we've seen it's a very important step for our improvising mechanism to work properly. If you're curious about that, if you'd really like to understand more about how this mental representation of the chord progression works and how we can develop it, I really suggest you check out this video I made about triadic colors.

I hope you found this article helpful. Don't forget to check out the use your ear workshop. This is a free 3-hour workshop packed with actionable content and proven exercises that you won’t get anywhere else!

 In this free 3-hour long workshop, you will:

  • Discover a science-based model that reveals the secrets great musicians use, without even knowing it, to recognize music on the fly ... secrets that anyone can harness to quickly develop a pro-caliber musical ear. 
  • Preview our step-by-step method to develop relative pitch faster and easier than you ever imagined. See first-hand how our students get results quickly, experiencing music on a much deeper level in a matter of weeks — no more tedious mental math on intervals.
  • Practice multiple exercises during the workshop. You’ll discover the right way to recognize melodies and chords, so you walk away with practical direction based on your own skill level and sticking points. You will know how to improve, instead of just guessing.
  • Learn which exercises to avoid at all costs — ineffective exercises, prescribed by generations of well-meaning music teachers, that doom 99.9% of promising musicians to failure — so you can avoid years of frustration and lack of progress.
  • Get TWO GIFTS, available nowhere else, to help you build on the concepts and exercises you learn during the workshop.

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Check out our YouTube video on How to Improvise on Any Instrument.


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