Master Piano Improvisation

Improvising at the piano Lesson.Do you play piano?

…Yes?!

But can you play without a score, without a list of chords, without a written or specified melody?

The most common scene for a piano student: you perform a little concert for a group of friends, and after you finish playing your most well-known pieces, one of them asks you: “Hey could you play for me anything from jazz or blues?…” or “Could you play for me something similar to [this song that you don’t know, nor have the score in front of you!] ?
Most times you answer evasively thus hiding your frustration that you don’t have a clue on how to do that, and play another song for them…. until now!

Our friend Paul Tobey, a concert pianist full of knowledge and experience, will give us a quick lesson about improvising at the keyboard or piano:

One of the greatest thrills a pianist can have is to be able to sit at the piano and just play; without music and without thought. Unfortunately many pianists never learn to do this. They are closely tied to their music because that’s not only what’s comfortable for them that’s the way they learned.

However, what if I were to tell you that in as little as ten piano lessons you could be playing your favorite melodies without music and also be able to improvise as well? Would that be something you’d be interested in? Take a moment and picture you sitting at the piano at a party and just playing. How does it feel? Great, that’s what you need to feel if you’re going to do what it takes to learn properly.

Let’s get started. In our first piano lesson, you must understand how music is structured in order to be able to improvise. Most western music is based on what we call tertian harmony, which simply means chord structures that are based on intervals of three. For example a C major chord is made up of the notes C E and G. Each of these notes is spaced a third away from the next.

So, assuming that all chords are based on tertian harmony, then next thing you need to know is where do the notes we choose for our chords come from? Well, they come directly out of a major or minor scale. For example; let’s take a C major scale which is C D E F G A B and back to C. When we build chords on top of each of the notes of a major scale we would build them in intervals of 3 and the quality of the chord (major or minor) is determined by the scale.

That means just like our C major chord which is C E and G (notes chosen from the major scale), our F major chord would be F A and C, where A and C are notes from the C major scale. We wouldn’t use for example Ab or C# because they do not come from the C major scale. Likewise for a G major chord, G B and D, the note B and D come also from the C major scale.

The number of the chord is important as well. Since our C major chord is built on the first note of the scale we call this one (1). The F major chord is four (4) because it is built on the 4th note of the C major scale. And, the G major chord is five (5) because it’s the 5th note of the C major scale.

Coincidentally, the chords C, F and G or 1, 4 and 5 are what most classical and popular music is based upon. The vast majority of songs use the chord progression 4, 5 to 1 which is the most common chord progression there is.

Understanding the 4, 5, 1 chord progression is essential to understating how to improvise. Knowing that 4 is followed usually by 5 and then resolving to 1 is of high importance if you wish to be able to play your favorite music without using sheet music.

In our next piano lesson we’ll discuss how to substitute richer chords for the 4, 5, 1 progression and how to choose our melody notes so as to create and improvisational theme.

I hope you enjoyed this lesson as much as I did.

I’ve studied piano for more than 12 years and let me tell you that in order to master the piano you must understand how music really works. When you get to know that, you’ll be able to play, compose, and improvise at ease.

We’ll be posting more interesting piano lessons in the following weeks.

Please tell us if this lesson was useful to you and what piano related-topics would you be most interested in learning!

Cheers!

Rod

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  • Start Piano Lessons Now & Play Like A Pro. Impress Your Friends Today!

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8 Responses to Master Piano Improvisation

  1. Stephen Willis says:

    Thank you so much for this information. Most websites try to charge for this information. I have been playing piano off and on for a couple years and am learning chords. I recently started Rocket Piano chorus to learn piano. It is a great chorus so far to learn how to read music. My question is should I learn sight reading and improvisation at the same time and if so how. Some people say that learning how to read musci and learn scales is the basis for learning how to improvise. Anotherwards you have to have alot of years of experience to learn scales , lots of chords, and then when your done, then one can improvise. Is this true? Maybe an article on this would help. Also, feel free to email me if you have an answer. Thank you again.

  2. Daniel E. Friedman says:

    Starting with basics is fine. However, a beginner student may have trouble with terms like ‘tertian’ and interval’. Congratulations on sticking with C major and the concept of 1, 4 and 5 chords (all good material for beginners).

  3. Questor says:

    Hi Stephen! Sight reading and improvisation are very different topics, and can lead you to different paths. However as you say they are related. Your sight reading skills will improve much faster if you’re able to recognize musical structures, scales, and chords, and the basics of piano harmony. In this way the requirements of good sight reading skills are also related to the requirements of learning how to improvise.

    My recommendation would be for you to learn all chord types and scales, and then learn how to harmonize all these scales. Once you understand the relation between chords and scales you’ll be able to improvise and compose in any key, and even predict what chord comes next in any piece your reading.

    For me learning harmony has changed everything. I used to spend months studying music pieces, and since I had little time I progressed really slowly. After learning harmony, everything has changed for me. Now I sit on the piano and improvise every day, and even have my own set of composed pieces of different musical styles. You’ll also see other pieces with a new angle, for example, once you understand the harmony beneath a Chopin’s Waltz you may even transpose it on the fly and improvise a new melody.

    This may all sound hard, but they are very easy concepts that can make your piano playing into something proffesional.

    Check out this site: http://www.pianoencyclopedia.com.
    I think it will be really useful.

    Stay in touch and make sure to tell me more about yourself!
    Cheers!
    Questor

  4. Joe Geran says:

    More Please, I actually understand this.

  5. Questor says:

    Hi Joe! Thanks!!! We’ll add more manga and drawing tutorials coming soon!!!!! 🙂

  6. eli says:

    please I want to know more abt improvisation using the different scales ie. the blues scale, pentatonic ( major and minor)etc. I will be very grateful.thnx

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