Piano improvisation – what kind of music is it possible to improvise?

What does musical improvisation on the piano keyboard mean to you? It doesn’t have to be some kind of avant-garde music nor the often inscrutably clever and sophisticated sounds created by the complex rhythms, scale patterns and chords of modern jazz. Well, improvising on the piano keys can sound natural, intelligible and musically meaningful. Musicians of the past were improvisers. And the great composers were great improvisers!

The ability to improvise with complete spontaneity is however quite rare now and it is generally considered in our culture to be very difficult or impossible for anyone who doesn’t possess special gifts. But this disempowering view is a dreadful mistake. It is not “difficult” to do once fluent skills are in place. The idea that it requires huge amounts of theoretical knowledge is false. Yet equally it doesn’t have to be formulaic or simplistic. We’ve all heard the kind of improvisation that is built on repetitive patterns using set chords or scales. Real improvising is something else altogether: it is composing in real time in any style you like. And it is obviously an incredibly valuable and impressive skill for any keyboard player to possess.

Improvisation is like going for a walk in nature: you discover beauty and drama, you don’t design or contrive it!

Improvise music as naturally as conversing

In reality, improvising is making up any kind of music you can imagine using the elements of the model we learn on this course. Once you have internalised the principles and elements of musical language fully and practised using them, improvisation is a natural and spontaneous process. 

Fluency in music is much like fluency in language. A writer creates a novel by improvising the story mentally and then writing the words down. This ability to improvise linguistically is therefore considered normal and necessary for a writer. And in fact, we are all improvising using language all the time, as we engage in conversation together. Music is similarly self-expression. It is the means by which we tell our inner story: the deeper feelings that words cannot explain. Memory plays a part just as it would if you were to make up a story but as long as you follow the unfolding, intend or mean consciously everything you play, there is no reason to wander off the plot. Obviously, being fluent in language doesn’t automatically make us all into equally great storytellers but we can all describe a dramatic event that happened to us. This is exactly how musical improvisation works for a fluent musician.

Improvisation actually forms the core practice in this course. It lays the foundations for reading and playing by ear which follow on naturally, just as we learn to speak as a foundation before we learn to read. Unless we can improvise, fluent reading is impossible. So improvising is the fundamental skill of a fluent musician.