5 Tips to Enhance Your Musical Improvisation Skills

Updated on April 24, 2019
Matthew Scherer profile image

Matthew is a studio musician from south Texas. In addition to original recordings, he has provided music for short films and commercials.

Musical improv can be rewarding, but it can also be intimidating. Even the most experienced players can get nervous during an improv session. For the beginner, it can seem near impossible to form music out of scales and chords. Here are five tips to keep your ideas fresh.

Tips to Enhance Your Musical Improv Skills

  1. Think in the opposite.
  2. Use call and response.
  3. Listen.
  4. Think up, down, and all around the instrument.
  5. Take risks.

1. Think in the Opposite

When improvising, it can be easy to default to your most familiar and frequently used phrases and rhythmic patterns. Breaking this pattern is easier than you might think. A good way to start is to think the opposite.

If you find yourself repeating a descending pattern, try it ascending. If you're playing one note per beat, try playing two. If you've got a good melody going, try playing it backwards. This simple trick can do a lot to freshen your playing.

2. Use Call and Response

Another pitfall of improvising is musical diarrhea. In other words, notes and phrases flying by without any real melody or meaning. A good way to avoid this is to use what's called call and response. It gets this name from its similarity to a conversation. When somebody poses a question, it's usually on a high inflection, and is left without resolution.

In music, we can emulate this by playing a phrase that ends on an interval that doesn't resolve the phrase. That interval is then followed by a beat of silence, like the hanging air of a question. The response is when you play another phrase after that beat of silence that does resolve.

This gives the auditory impression that the question has been answered. The easiest way to do this would be if you were playing an A minor Blues jam, to first play a phrase that ends on a C.

In the key of A minor, the C is the third, which provides unresolved tension when ending a phrase on it. After a beat of silence, play another phrase that resolves to an A note. The A is the root of the key, so it provides resolution. Call and response is always a sure fire way to spice things up.

3. Listen

Listening is one of the most important and one of the hardest things to do when improvising. When the spotlight is on, it's hard not to think that it's all about you.

However, if you can find it in you to slow down for a second and pay attention, you can take in some key information.

What are the other musicians doing? Is the piano player vamping on something you can incorporate into your playing? Is the bass player outlining chords you can accentuate? Is the drummer playing a beat you can follow?

Not just the musicians, but what is the crowd doing? Are they responding to what you're playing, or not paying attention? Call and response can be a good way to peak people's interest again, as it encourages active listening.

4. Think Up, Down, and All Around

Having an issue with your playing getting stale? You're probably only thinking in one direction. It can be easy to turn your brain off and only play linear lines.

It can be quite boring to hear intervals close to each other, so try spreading out! Arpeggios are a great way to break out of linearity. Outlining chords can get you thinking laterally.

Don't just play straight arpeggios though, try spreading the intervals out as wide as possible. If arpeggios get stale, let the notes ring out! Two or three note voicing's instead of full chords can add serious flavor. If you're feeling especially frisky, you could try sliding mid phrase down an octave, or vice versa.

Octaves can be another way to diversify the sound. They can also add strength to your melodies. After a few rounds of arpeggios, voicing's, and octaves, more linear patterns will sound refreshing to the ear again.

5. Take Risks

The best way to break out of your comfort zone is to completely abandon it. After all, your musical library can't expand by playing the same things. During practice, seek out difficult and unique backing tracks in keys you're not used to.

Don't worry about sounding perfect the first time, it's about trying new things. This can come into play during live performances as well. Have an idea, but aren't too confident it'll work, go for it! To the listener, it can be rewarding to hear a musician reaching for something, trying to push their limits. A wrong note here and there won't make much difference.

Instead, strive to sound different than you ever have. A lot of musicians will build their lick library and stick to it until death. Well, if you know everything you're going to play beforehand, it ceases to be true improvisation. Spontaneous composition in its true form is imperfect, but speaks volumes. Even incorrect notes can convey emotion.

© 2019 Matthew Scherer


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