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The Techniques for Learning Improvisation

Updated on December 19, 2014

General Concepts Applied to Improvisation

In this article I will be presenting some of the basic principles to get someone familiar with the concept of improvisation and composition. These are simple ideas that when applied will bring your improvisations to a whole new level. Eventually I will incorporate some video examples so keep checking in.

Improvisation Overview

There are three general areas in which improvisation is used in music, composition, soloing and accompaniment.

Composition

There is improvisation used in composing. A composer may improvise on some ideas until they find something they like. It is then when they apply all of their musical knowledge to refine these improvisations into a written piece of work. Many of the great composers were known to be excellent improvisers.

This makes a great case for a musician to really know the theory of how things go together. Imagine coming up with some great ideas for a piece, but then what? It can be frustrating not knowing where to go next.

Soloing in a Song

There is improvisation used for soloing on a song. Think of it as instant composition where the performer is called upon to create an improvised melody right on the spot. One definition for this kind of improvisation is that it is “the act of spontaneously rearranging or re-combining pre-learned ideas.”

When you hear or see great musicians effortlessly solo, doesn’t it seem so natural to them? Although it’s as if they are coming up with all these great melodies for the first time off the top of their heads, you can be sure there is a huge bag of tricks that they’ve practiced and are able to draw from.

Music theory is very useful here as well. The good news is that learning how to improvise will actually teach you music theory in a fun way.

Accompaniment

Improvisation also occurs in accompaniment where the rhythm and chord voicings may be varied and embellished. This very typical in jazz, rock & blues where there may be a basic structure but the guitar, keyboard, drums and bass are expected to make up an accompaniment in a specific style. Also, it is not unusual for horn players to improvise a background for another soloist, especially in a jazz or blues setting.

Whether they are for soloing or composition, the ideas presented in this book are typical of the techniques improvisers of all genres always use. There is enough information here to keep a musician busy for a long time, so don’t try to take it all in in one day. Instead, take little pieces at a time and try to incorporate them into your playing and practice. Familiarize yourself with these concepts and soon you will recognize them in other players as well as having them become part of your own vocabulary.

One, Two & Four Measure Phrasing

A good way for a beginning improviser to keep their solos from wandering is to play their phrases in predetermined lengths. One, two and four measure phrases tend to be the most common. A lot of it depends on the tempo. Of course any length phrase is possible, but it is usually best to start out with even phrases until you get the hang of it.

Rhythmic Phrasing

A starting point for any improviser is to have a concept of various rhythms and be able to apply them directly to their choice of notes. “Borrowing” rhythms from other songs, as well as other instruments and vocals is an excellent way to generate ideas for your solos.

Development

Repeating a phrase melodically or rhythmically, and introducing some variation each time adds interest and creates a sense of motion. A phrase could morph into something totally new. Little fragments of a previous phrase could also be used as starting points for new ideas.

Repetition

Repeating the same phrase is common among all soloists. Melodic repetition would be using the same notes. Rhythmic repetition would be using the same rhythm, but on different notes.






Variations on a Theme

Taking the basic melody of a tune you are going to improvise over and embellishing it with different notes and rhythms is a standard way getting started on improvising. As you get used to rephrasing the tune, move further and further away from the main melody and come up with your own original ideas.

Dynamics & Articulation

Be sure to be aware of elements such as:

Volume Levels

Crescendos

Decrescendos

Legato

Sustained

Slurs

Staccato




Intervals

An excellent coordination as well as melodic exercise is to play your scales in interval patterns. You'll often hear references such as "play the scale in 3rds," which means to alternate between each note in the scale and a diatonic (in key) note that is three notes away. For example, 3rds would be; C followed by E, D followed by F, etc.

  • Harmonic Interval: Play the notes together as a chord. Sometimes called Diads.
  • Melodic Interval: Play the notes separately as a melody.

Sequence

A sequence is when you take a scale or a melodic pattern and repeat the same order, but on a higher or lower note of the scale. For example, if you took the scale pattern CDE from the key of C, the next pattern in the sequence would be DEF then EFG followed by FGA etc.

The 24 Patterns Sequences

This is a fantastic way to generate melodic and sequential ideas. The premise is that 4 notes can be played in 24 different orders. Using the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 you get:

1234, 1243, 1324, 1342, 1423, 1432

2134, 2143, 2314, 2341, 2413, 2431

3124, 3142, 3214, 3241, 3412, 3421

4321, 4312, 4231, 4312, 4123, 4132

Just apply these numbers to any set of pitches for example A B C D.

24 Sequences

Rhythmic Displacement

Shifting a phrase ahead or behind can give you interesting results without having to change pitches.

Polyrhythm

Playing an odd number of notes against an even pulse is a useful device that automatically adds syncopation to a solo. 3 against 4 for example is when you take a group of notes for example A, B and C, and repeat them in an continuous eighth note rhythm (could be any value). This would be an uneven grouping if everyone was in 4/4 time as three eighth notes don't fit evenly in a measure.

  • Pattern 1: 123412341234123412341234
  • Pattern 2: 123123123123123123123123

These types of patterns also create the rhythmic displacement effect.

A repeating pattern is also known as an ostinato.

Ostinato

A repetitive melodic or rhythmic figure. Sometimes this is called a repetitive riff. These are often played in groups of 3, 4, 5 and 6

Pedal Tone

Playing a scale while alternating it with a single note above or below.

Target Tones

Intentionally ending a scale run or phrase on a predetermined pitch. These notes are often chord tones.

Syncopation

Playing melodies off the beat and emphasizing the upbeat.

Retrograde

Play your phrase backwards.

Substitution

Take a phrase and swap out various notes.

Counterpoint

Simultaneously or staggered, play scales in opposite directions. ex C D E going up while B A G are going down. B-C, A-D and G-E.

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