Improvisation in Music: Definition, Rules & Techniques

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

A quintessential component of many contemporary musical genres, this lesson will examine the rules and techniques for improvisation in music. Afterward, test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Improvisation In Music - What Is It?

Improvisation is like making it up as you go, right? In a way, yes. In its simplest form, improvisation is simply spontaneous, extemporaneous musical creation. So yes, in that sense, it is just making it up as you go. But unless you're using some sort of random note generator, it isn't actually possible to truly be completely free.

That's because of the inherent patterns involved in the cultural context of music (music from a Euro-centric/American culture uses a specific type of scale pattern and tuning, different than the tuning and patterns found in Asian cultures for example). Even if you were to just bang randomly with your forearm, there would still be a pattern - your forearm chord.

So yes, while improvisation is essentially making it up as you go, there are a few rules and techniques that are inherent in the musical process. Oh, right. Rules also tend to make music sound aesthetically pleasing (read: good).

Improvisation - Wait, There's Rules?

Well, it depends who you talk to and the genre in which you will be improvising. Genres like jazz and blues have an entirely different vocabulary than say, rap or punk. But if we stick to improvisation at its broadest, the rules are quite simple:

  • Know your scales
  • Keep it simple

Let's look at the two rules separately.

Know Your Scales

Accomplished musician or not, to improvise, you must know your scales. What's a scale you ask? It's a collection of notes related to a home tone. Why do I need to know them? They tell you what notes belong together, where you can reach out to for extra notes, and how to keep your improvisation moving through tension and release.

C Major Scale
C Major Scale

For example, if you are improvising in the key of C, your C scale contains C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. You know then that you can pretty much make use of only those notes, and you'd probably sound pretty okay. If you're improvising a solo with an accompanist, you know that they will be using the chords of the C scale, so again, keeping with the notes in the scale you're working in will keep your solo sounding pretty okay.

What about those extra notes? Well, if you're playing jazz or blues, you could use a B flat, that would give you that jazzy sound. You could possibly use E flat borrowing from the Dorian mode, which is a commonly used (in jazz and blues) old type of scale with lowered 3rd and 7th scale degrees.

Keep It Simple

The most important rule for improvisation is to keep it simple. You could really dig deep and find a bunch of little rules (that are really more like suggestions for aesthetically pleasing music), but it all boils down to this: keep it simple.

One of the easiest things to do with improvisation is to embellish the melody. Do you like cake? How about cake with frosting? OK, a simple birthday cake from the grocery store is the melody; one of those crazy wedding cakes would represent embellishing. You took the theme, and added a bunch of weird stuff to it.

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