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The Art of Improvisation

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Read Time: 16 min

Whether your a stand up comedian or a musician knowing how to improvise is an essential craft. Although this article won't teach you 'how' to improvise it will give you an insight into the thought process behind it and the tools you'll need to start.

What is Improvisation?

In musical terms ‘Improvisation’ is the process of performing or composing music in real time, on the fly, in the spur of the moment, off the cuff or whatever you choose to call it. Basically your making it up as you go along! This can include the creation of new musical ideas or a new interpretation of an existing melody or composition. The whole point is that it's not preconceived but flows naturally from you as you play taking any direction you wish.

The funny thing is we’re all improvisors! Every person on the planet is making it up as we go. Our ability to problem solve, make decisions quickly and act on them, intellectualize thoughts and abstracts and develop them into tangible objects and scenarios in real time is what’s made us such a successful species. These mental and emotional processes we experience on a day to day basis are also at the heart of improvisation.

Now improvising is usually associated with Jazz and Blues but the truth is unless your playing music that is rigidly constructed and preformed 'exactly' the same every time down to the last minute detail, your improvising!

The great thing about improvising is that anyone can do it, you don't need to have a degree in Jazz or be musical prodigy. It's fun and an essential part of what makes you well, you! Obviously it's a huge topic and I can't cover it all in one article but I can explain some of the fundamental concepts and thought processes behind good improvisation, the most useful being the parallels between language and music.

Not Everyone's Cup Of Tea!

Now Improvisation is not for everyone. Some musicians never improvise and to others it’s the holy grail and a lifetimes pursuit of the perfection of their art form. Classical musicians are a good example of non-improvisors. Now I know that’s a sweeping generalization but for the most part it’s true. This is partly down to the fact that classical music is not an improvised sport, it has strict rules and traditions and is read from paper. Imagine a 60 piece orchestra in a room and the conductor says, “Ok, let’s jam in C!” Disaster!!

There are obviously exceptions and I know a lot of amazing classical players who improvise very well. This is due to the fact they have musical interests outside of classical music, usually Jazz.

Take Gabriela Montero. This woman is supernaturally talented. She seemingly has the ability to improvise on any melody presented to her at random. As a child she was actively discouraged from her improvising skills by her classical piano teacher branding her talents as 'useless'. She was so distraught by this she gave up playing for years. Luckily for us she started again and combined her classical training with her love of improvisation. Have a look at her take on the famous guitar piece 'Asturias'. Mind bending!!!

It’s Not Just About Solos You Know!

Now usually the first thing you think of when you hear the word improvisation is extended, self indulgent guitar solos, 45 minute Jazz Tuba freeform experiments, and intellectuals in black polar neck sweaters scratching their goatees! Saying that I once went to a gig where the support was a guy playing a car tire with an electric sander for half an hour! He was wearing a black polar neck!! The truth is that writing a song is a form of improvisation, you make it up as you go, creating something new that didn't exist before. This raw creation is then fine tuned, arranged, produced and presented as a finished piece to the world.

How does that initial spark of an idea happen though? Where does it come from? More importantly when it does come how can we harness it and shape it into something meaningful to the listener as it happens? When improvising this process is happening constantly. New ideas and musical stories are born, played, embellished, restated and discarded in favor of even better ones at an alarming rate. Sometimes we're telling an old story in a new exciting way.

Improvisation is found in most if not all cultures. It usually comes in the shape of traditional musical forms that have been passed down through the generations that are constantly reinterpreted and improvised upon by the new breed of musicians.

A good example of this is Blues. The ‘12’ bar ‘form’ is very simple in concept yet harmonically 'very' complex at the same time. The same three chords and simple scales (pentatonic) have been used as a basis for what seems like an infinite amount of melodic variations and improvisations. The same is true of the ‘Ragas’ which are an Indian musical form. Of course what makes these 'framework' variations unique are the personalities and talent of the performers.

Improvisation isn’t limited to conventional instruments either and can be indulged in by one or a whole ensemble of willing musicians and sound designers. Electronic gadgetry and prepared instruments have always been great source of experimentation and improvisation.

Ordered Chaos!

One interesting concept is composed improvisation. This where music is written and notated in such a way that it left open to interpretation by the musicians. Below is image of a piece by Joe Pignato. The piece is described as 'A graphic structure for any number of improvisers'. As you can see there are no written notes only a timeline and an indication of where the sound should occur in the frequency spectrum.

The interesting thing is although the piece has structure there's no way it could ever sound the same twice. Seeing as there's no indication of what sounds should play what, the musicians would simply be improvising and making decisions based on what they thought would work sonically.

When In Rome!

When you go to a foreign country there are two things that you'll find confusing. Geography and Language. These are also the two main hurdles of being able to express yourself on an instrument fully when improvising.

Let's start with Geography. Knowing where the notes are on your instrument is as important as knowing where to find food and water in an unfamiliar place. For any musician, learning the geography of your instrument is a basic necessity. Having taught at a large guitar institute (and attended one) the first thing you notice are the students who get overwhelmed purely because they don't know where the notes are. As a teacher it's your duty to try and get them up to speed, for some however it can prove to be too much.

Being able to visualize the notes before you play them (doesn't matter if your playing the Gamelan or the Stylophone) both mentally and physically while relating them theoretically to a musical situation (the harmony i.e. Chords, Key) is 'helpful', I'm putting that mildly! These visual toolsets usually take the form of shapes, patterns, fingerings etc. You probably won't ever be saying the actual notes in your head as you play them but rather subconsciously placing your hands, sticks, electric sander in the location you know will make the sound you want to hear. Saying that if someone calls some chords like G7, F13 and C9 and you don't know where those notes are let alone the 7's and 13's these tools won't do you much good as you'll have no point of reference. A bit like using a Sextant 'inside a ship'.

Saying that you can take comfort in these words. "Your only ever a semitone away from a right note".

What Are you Trying To Say?

This brings us to Language, and music is a language! Here's the deal, when you speak you use language to convey an idea to someone. You don't consciously think of how the words are spelt, punctuation, or how many nouns and adjectives your using, you just say it. This is because since you we're old enough to speak you've been building a vocabulary of words and phrases and conversing with people on a daily basis. It's just natural.

This is exactly what happens with playing an instrument. The more you learn, play and practice the larger your musical vocabulary becomes until one day you no longer need to analyze the language to convey the idea. It flows naturally. A musical vocabulary will consist of a knowledge of scales, intervals, chords, phrases, styles, techniques, feel, timing, dynamics, tone etc. You then apply these to the delivery of a musical idea in the same way you apply variations in timing, tone, and dynamics to 'spoken' language, using your voice to enhance the message your putting across. Simple!

The similarities between music and spoken language go on and on. Being a good lister is an important one, the ability to detect shifts in harmony and dynamics and respond to them quickly is essential. A sympathetic ear will serve you well. You've also got know when to keep your mouth shut too!

Reading body language. An amazing amount of information is passed when we talk through body language. Keeping an eye out and looking at other musicians is also very important. If a drummer nods at you it can mean one of two things. Either, check out the blonde in the front row or get ready somethings going to happen musically. Usually it's the former though!

Lastly is timing or punctuation. You don't, (how can I put this?) vomit a story over the listener at 100 miles an hour without taking a breathe. You pace yourself. You add pauses, dynamics and embellish key ideas to draw the listener in so they want to hear the story till the end! The same is true of an improvisation and composition. Probably the most important point here is the story, or idea you want to convey. The vocabulary is just the tool used to communicate the idea!

Reading, Writing And Communicating With Other Musicians

You don't have to read or physically write music on paper to be a good musician or improvisor. It's a good skill to have though. At the very least though you should be able to understand and communicate the naming conventions associated with chords and scales and be able to apply them to the instrument. Here's a conversation to explain my point.

You: "Hey, I've got this recipe (song) and it needs this certain ingredient (chord), can you get it for me from the shop? (play it)"

Me: "Sure what's this ingredient (chord) called?"

You: "I'm not sure."

Me: "Can you describe it?"

You: "I'll try. (fumbles to find a 'C' note) It's yellow."

Me: "Is it a Banana? (C major?)"

You: "No."

Me: "Is it a Melon (C 7)?"

You: "No it's kind of sour (a minor 3rd maybe?) but sweet too (a 9th?)."

Me: "Is it a Lemon (C min 9)?"

You: "No, actually it's more sweet than sour!"

Me: "Is it a grapefruit? (C7#9)"

You: "Yeah man, that's it"

Me: "Are you on drugs?"

As you see you'll waste a lot of time trying to explain a musical concept if you don't know the language. A good producer will usually come from a musical background and will know how to speak the lingo with musicians, in a production environment you can't tell a musician to sound more 'aubergine' and expect them to understand what you mean. In a jamming situation you can't point at a fret and expect the keyboard player to understand what you mean as they don't have frets. Etc etc.

When you use the written language of music (on paper) you have to be far more consciously aware of the spelling(note/chord names), punctuation(timing/dynamics), and grammar(phrasing) because your trying to communicate the idea visually to someone maybe on the other side of the world without saying it. Spelling it wrong will result in the reader not being able to understand it, or misinterpreting you ideas. Equally if I present you with a simple chord chart in the studio and ask you to make a part based on those chords, are you able to instantly identify what you see as a musical sound? Here's an example chart.

Can you hear the chords? Can you see the chord shapes? What if I want them an octave higher? What are the most important notes in each chord? What scale goes with each chord? So many questions! In a lot of session/gigging situations the ability to create parts from a chart on the fly is standard practice. Sometimes there isn't even a chart so you have to work the chords out quickly as you listen and create a part suitable to the style of the music there and then.

Basically if you want to hang out in 'Musicland' you'd better learn the language!

Teach a Man to Fish!

When you start to play an instrument the first thing you'll want to do is work out the thing that inspired you to pick it up. For guitarists it riffs and licks, for drummers a favorite beat. In fact you'll spend the vast majority of your time as a beginner working out other peoples material. This is probably the best way to learn. The trouble is at some stage you'll get to a point where all you can play is other peoples licks. And when your jamming you just repeat all those licks verbatim and quickly run out of steam.

This happens a lot with guitarists who learn everything from TAB. It comes to a point where they are unable to think for themselves, they get into a trap of learning advanced phrases by rote instead of learning the theory and basic techniques behind them. The first thing a student will ask when you show them a lick is, "Can you TAB that for me?". My answer is usually, "No, instead I'm going to explain how I came up with it, what scale it comes from, the techniques it uses and how it relates to the chords. That way you'll have the facility to go away and make your own licks for the rest of your life."

One of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to find a good teacher, and learn by ear. The process of ear training and transcribing music is painfully slow to start with but the rewards are great. Along with some theory and technique taught by a good teacher working things out by ear will get a lot easier. The benefit is identifying scales, chords and phrases by ear is essential to improvisation. You'll also remember something you worked hard for a lot better than something that came free. If you're trying to work out a solo and you can work out what key it's in, what the chords are and what scales (and positions) are being used along with the sound of the techniques by 'ear' your half way there already!!

Useful Tips and Exercises

  • Record everything you do! - This is a great way to mark your progress! You might also capture something awesome that can be used/sampled in a track!
  • Know When Your On To A Good Thing! - If you stumble on some cool idea or phrase, do it again! Then take that idea and expand on it and make a story!
  • Learn Theory! - Knowledge is power!
  • Learn Technical Exercises - Can you ascend a scale in thirds, fourths, fifths? Do you know your arpeggios? These will all add to your vocabulary!
  • Be Yourself And Have Fun! - Don't let people get you down! Do your own thing and create your own voice! Music is fun, not a competition!
  • Play With Other Musicians! - Hunt out a jam night in your area and get involved. A stage is the best classroom in the world.
  • Listen To Different Instruments - If you're a guitarist transcribe other instruments. Start with Stevie Wonder's harmonica playing!
  • Use A Sound That Inspires You! - The sound you have can have a dramatic effect on the way you play. Pay attention to your sound!
  • Use Rhythmic Ideas! - A Rhythmic idea can be as powerful as a melodic one! See how much you can get out of one note!
  • Don't Let your Hands Lead - Your the boss! Not your hands! Tell them what to play, not the other way round!
  • Practice Something You Don't Know - In a rut, playing the same old stuff over and over? Add something new to your vocabulary!
  • Being A Good Musician Isn't A Crime - They're either jealous or too cool for school! If your more interested in posing, become a model! Learning Stuff Rocks!
  • Pass On Your Knowledge! - Teaching is a great way to learn.
  • Ask Questions! - Never be afraid of asking questions. That's how you learn stuff!
  • Leave Space! - Sometimes it's not what you play but what you don't! That's true you know!


Improvising is an art form, no question. It can take a long, long time to get good at it. Even if you've been playing a number of years some days will be good and some will be bad. No matter what instrument, object or 'software' you play learning to improvise is a great way to have fun and improve yourself as a musician. It will help you out of sticky situations and you'll always learn something from it. If you just want to jam with your friends you'll probably only need a basic understanding of chords and a few workhorse scales like the Pentatonic and Major/Minor etc to see you through. If you'd like to take it further there is a life time of study ahead of you. Either way, have fun with it and be creative!

Your brain is a fast machine, kind of like a 10,000 GHz Intel Xeon 100,000 core mega processor (although performance may vary on some models). With the right programming your brain is capable of allowing the creation of new and exciting sounds, melodies, harmonies and rhythms all in real time! Without the tools to capture these unique improvised events they will disappear into the aether without a trace never to be heard again, living only in the memories of those who witnessed them. This musical process is happening all over the world, right now as you read this. And will do till the end of time!

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