Music Improvisation

using Creativity + Music Theory

The Art & Science of Making Your Own Music !
In this page, you'll find useful principles for musical improvisation — for
improving your creativity, using music theory and chord progressions,
and more — that will help you make any kind of music you want:
jazz, blues, pop, rock, folk, soul, gospel, classical,...

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.


This page is in two main parts:
Part 1 — psychological principles for Making Music by letting yourself be creative.
Part 2 — logical principles of Music Theory — for making music by using harmony.

 
Part 1:
Making Music

by exploring possibilities with
Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm

 

 
Experiment with Making Music:
just Relax & Listen, and Learn.

You may feel more free to creatively explore different ways of making your own music if you experiment in low-risk situations — when nobody (not you or anyone else) cares about the quality or klunkers — and listen carefully for feedback, to discover what does and doesn't work well, to gain valuable experience.  Instead of worrying about the possibility of mistakes, just relax, listen, and learn.   /   how to excel in welding and improvising in other areas of life and Learning from Experience

        Black-and-White Improvising with a Keyboard
        You can improvise using a piano or electronic keyboard.  No lessons are needed.  Just begin pressing keys and making music.
        Here are some easy ways to play in 7 keys (5 pentatonics, plus major and minor) with a keyboard: 
        • Play only the black keys.  Look at the visual arrangement of the black keys, and notice the spatial pattern that repeats every 5 notes.  These 5 repeating notes form a pentatonic scale that is used in most cultures, all around the world.  While you're playing with the black keys, experiment with a variety of melodies, rhythms, and moods.  First, just play any way you want, listen, and see what happens.  Then you can try something different by doing melodic experiments:  use one note as a home-note for your melodic wanderings by starting with it, or using it a little more often in your melodies, or...   After awhile, shift to another home-note.  Each home-note is a different pentatonic scale with 5 notes, and you can play with all of the 5 pentatonic scales, each starting on a different note.  You don't need to worry about making a "melodic mistake" with a pentatonic scale, since everything you do will sound fairly good, so you can just relax and play with the notes in different ways.  But while you're experimenting and listening, you'll find that some sequential combinations are more useful (for purposes of enjoyment, personal expression, aesthetic appeal,...) so listen for these combinations, and have fun exploring the melodic and rhythmic possibilities.
        • Or you can play only the white notes.  As with the black keys, for awhile "just play any way you want, listen, and see what happens."  Then use "C" as a home-note, and you'll be playing in the key of C Major.  Then try "A" as a home-note, and you'll be playing in A Minor.  How can you know where "C" and "A" are?  Look for C on the colorized keyboard and then move two notes leftward, using alphabetical logic, to find B and then A.
        Novices and Experts:  Both tips, playing black or white, can be useful for novice improvisors.  If you're a fairly expert musician you may not get much from playing the white keys, although if you creatively experiment it could be a useful experience.  But I think you'll be fascinated by the results of playing only the black keys, because (as explained above) it's impossible to make a mistake so it's easier to do relaxed experimenting, and because the limitations (using only 5 notes instead of the usual 7 or 12) can help you focus on finding melodies that can be produced by using only these 5 notes.  Basically, it's "something different" and this can stimulate creativity.

        Sing Along and Play Along
        • You can sing along* with a song from radio, CD, or mp3.  Sing with different songs for a variety of contextual inspirations, or repeat a song over & over so you can try a variety of different ideas, explore options, observe the results, adjust what you're doing, and discover new musical possibilities.  Singing can be a fun way to make music because there is an efficient connection between thinking and doing, with your musical ideas intuitively-and-automatically translated into sound.   /   One option is to sing without words, or whistle.  For some reason, I find that when singing “tones without words” it's easier to intuitively release fresh ideas, and new musical ideas tend to happen more often.  Why?  Maybe it's because nonverbal musical creativity is freed from old ruts imposed by the restriction of a song's lyrics or your own personal verbal habits, so the intuitive-and-automatic translation (of ideas → music) can operate in less restricted ways? or because your brain doesn't have to "multitask" by doing both nonverbal and verbal, so you can use more of your mental resources to focus more completely on making nonverbal music?  But no matter WHY it's happening, whenever you notice a situation where something good is happening with your musical creativity (as in my experiences of singing without words) you can take advantage of this opportunity for creativity.
        • Or you can play along by using a musical instrument.  If you can play an instrument with skill, this will help you improvise skillfully.  If you can play several musical instruments, try using each of them and listen to the difference in results.  I play several (slide trombone, valve trombone, bamboo flute, keyboard, guitar, percussion, blues harp, plus singing & whistling) and each inspires different types of musical improvisation, due to differences in tone (and thus mood & imagery), speed (valve trombone allows faster playing than slide trombone), flexibility (slide trombone allows “sliding” between notes), muscle memory (this will make some note patterns easy for you to play, but only on a particular instrument), visual thinking (as for keyboard or slide trombone or guitar)*, and other factors.  Creatively experiment with different instruments, including your voice, explore the possibilities of each (don't limit yourself to what is possible with other instruments, because each music-making instrument allows & inspires different types of music) and see what happens.   /  * For my colorized keyboard, Visual Thinking is easier in the key of C.  With slide trombone the key of F allows the greatest variety of “long sliding” options, as explained in its visual thinking page.  And as one example of "other factors," with a valve trombone (or trumpet) the key of E-flat is very easy to play, much easier than the key of E.
        For both singing and playing, you can use a thinking strategy` (for learning and/or performing) that will help you learn more from experience when you want to improve a mental-and-physical skill` such as singing or playing (for music) or speaking (for conversation).

 

        IMAGERY and MYSTERY

        IMAGERY
        While you're playing or singing, try different moods, feelings, and images.
        For example, here is musical imagery from the pen of O. Henry:  "As Whistling Dick picked his way where night still lingered among the big, reeking, musty warehouses, he gave way to the habit that had won for him his title.  Subdued, yet clear, with each note as true and liquid as a bobolink's, his whistle tinkled about the dim, cold mountains of brick like drops of rain falling into a hidden pool.  He followed an air, but it swam mistily into a swirling current of improvisation.  You could cull out the trill of mountain brooks, the staccato of green rushes shivering above the chilly lagoons, the pipe of sleepy birds."
        And you can invent your own imagery.  Some of the bamboo flutes I've made play only the 5 pentatonic notes, and while playing one of these flutes I like to imagine sitting at the edge of a small pond filled with floating lotus blossoms in China, watching a beautiful sunset and playing music that fits the mood I'm imagining.
        You can use imagery, for the music or the way you're feeling or thinking, when you're playing or listening.

        MYSTERY
        In his book, Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), Leonard Meyer proposes that when listeners hear music they intuitively and unconsciously follow the flow of what has been happening in the music, and they “predict” what will happen in the music.  If there is too much sameness, so listeners can predict everything, they may become bored.  But they may get frustrated if the music is too difficult to predict.  Usually, the music we enjoy is an in-between mix, with some confirmation of expectations along with pleasant surprises, in a blend that is interesting rather than frustrating or boring.
        These ideas are explored more deeply in a page about Mystery in Music that asks why we don't necessarily become bored or frustrated:  For example, you enjoy hearing some songs over and over, even though (or because?) you already know what will happen.  And you can enjoy listening to innovative music that is difficult to predict, when it fits together in a creatively logical way (like a clever mystery story) so you can think back on what you've heard and say “yes, of course.”  Or maybe you think “I'm not sure why, but it worked” to make an entertaining musical experience, with music that was unusually beautiful, or was edgy, zany, energetic, playful,...
        In drama & humor, dancing & conversation, and in other aspects of life, you can think about the functions of expectations that are partially fulfilled, yet with some surprises that “make sense” in retrospect, or that simply add interesting variety.

        A Wider Perspective:  Imagery and Mystery are only two of the many aspects of Emotion that musicians can use when they "express what they feel, and want you to feel" while they are playing music, whether the music they're making is their current improvisation or is a previous composition of their own or from someone else.

 
Improvise Music — using Melody, Harmony, Rhythm
 

        Melodic Improvisation

        The melody of a song is only one of many possible similar melodies.
        To produce “melodic variations on a basic theme” you can change some of the original notes in the melody, or you can add or eliminate notes.  You can make wide leaps from one note to another;  or, as explained in Part 2 below, use closely spaced notes in a scale-notes sequencewith notes ascending or descending, or (with narrower spacing) a chromatic sequence, or (with wider spacing) a chord-note sequence called an arpegio.  You can use these possibilities, and others, in any blending you want.
        Try notes in creative new combinations.  For example, in Sophisticated Lady (by Duke Ellington) the main theme uses notes that often move in small steps, by contrast with the chorus where notes make big up-and-down leaps, yet the two parts (main theme & chorus) fit together well despite their differences;  the entire song uses notes in creative ways to form melodies that are carefully designed to be unusual yet beautiful.    {more about Sophisticated Lady}
 

        Harmonic Improvisation
        You can try to harmonize with the main melody, with non-melody notes that sound harmonious when played at the same time as the melody notes.  For intuitive inspirations about "how to do it", listen carefully to a group with good harmony, and then sing along while you listen!
        Due to the high risk of failure while you're learning how to harmonize more skillfully, you should "experiment in low-risk situations, when nobody (not you or anyone else) cares about klunkers.  Listen carefully for feedback, to discover what does and doesn't work well, to gain valuable experience — ... relax, listen, and learn."
        You can more fully develop the mental aspects of harmonizing — which is a mental-and-physical skill with each aspect mutually supporting the other — when you learn more about the musical theory of harmony in Part 2.*
        Or try another type of supporting role by providing a bass line, counter-melody, chord structure, backup rhythm, or whatever you want.
        * Later, in Part 2 you'll find ideas for harmonizing — simultaneously and/or sequentially — by using chord progressions and music theory and by experimenting with harmony-and-melody.
 

        Rhythmic Improvisation

        Experiment with different rhythms:  make some notes shorter or longer — like replacing eighth-notes [evenly spaced, as in a timing of 6-and-6] with dotted-eighths [9-and-3], or with triplets [8-and-4]) to make it "swing" — or play more notes or fewer notes, or “do things” for the on-beats (1 & 3) and off-beats (2 & 4), make the tempo slower or faster or (as in songs by Chopin) variable, or even change the time-structure from 4/4 to 12/8 or 3/4, or... 

The Process of Improvising Music
 
        Preparation for Improvising
        In the FreeDictionary the first two definitions of improvising are:   1) To invent, compose, or perform with little or no preparation.   2) To play or sing (music) extemporaneously, especially by inventing variations on a melody or creating new melodies in accordance with a set progression of chords.
        Definition #1 is sufficient for low-quality unskilled improvisation, and is necessary if you are forced to “do the best you can” to cope with an unexpected situation, although in these situations you typically must do something besides "invent, compose, or perform."  High-quality improvisation, in music or in other areas of life, requires long-term preparation to build a solid foundation of skills and experiences, in all of the ways (or at least some of them) described in Part 1, and (if you want to fully develop your physical-and-mental potential) in Part 2 below.  When you are well prepared, you will never have to face an unexpected situation "with little or no preparation," at least in the areas for which you have prepared.
        Definition #2, by contrast, accurately describes the kind of improvisation that is the focus of this page.

        Active Listening as a Preparation for Improvising
        This is similar to sing along or play along but you are passive-and-active:  you passively let someone else play a song (on a CD, radio, mp3,... or in a live performance) and you actively listen.  Be alertly aware yet relaxed, fully using your ears and mind so you can be a good observer, so you can hear more of what's happening in the music.  By listening carefully, you can learn a lot while enjoying the process of discovery.
        At a basic level, you can listen for the rhythm (interacting with melody) that produces the 1-count of each musical measure, and decide if the measures have 4 counts (most common) or 3 counts (as in a waltz).  At a level that's a little more advanced, but is easy when you're musically aware, listen for the phrasing that occurs every 2 measures, which is every 8 counts, or 6 counts for a waltz.  You'll hear a coherent musical phrase (sort of like a sentence in talking) every 2 measures, plus larger musical units (analogous to paragraphs?) in multiples of 2 measures, so these are every 2 measures, and 4 measures,...
        You can listen to the same song over and over, hearing more and more of what makes the music what it is.  And you can listen to different styles of music, asking “What makes this type of music sound distinctive?”  In each style, try to discover the characteristics — the combinations of tempo, rhythms, melodies, harmonies, chord progressions, instruments, playing/singing styles,... — that make the style sound the way it does, so you can imitate it or try to change it with various adjustments of the characteristics.
        Your goals, which can change from one listening to another, may be to experience the overall effect of “the song as a whole,” or to focus on specific characteristics of the music, as in the analytical approach described above.  You can shift your perspective back between levels, by using a whole-part-whole approach.  For example, you might try to hear each individual instrument, and how it relates to other instruments and to the whole, and what functional role it plays in the musical mix.  If you want to move from “what is” to “what might be,” try to imagine how some instruments could play their roles differently, and how these changes would affect the overall musical result.
        After you actively listen for awhile, you can play along with a song so you can “hear your ideas while they're happening” as described below.

        Listening during Interactive Improvising
        This is another level of experience, with an opportunity to make real-time musical decisions.  As described earlier, it can be useful to "experiment in low-risk situations... to gain valuable experience."  How?
        Maybe you can find a friendly group to play with, and they'll be supportive and will encourage you to "relax, listen, and learn."  It's fun to make music together, and your friends can provide stimulation plus feedback that will help you learn.  And if non-players are listening, they can provide external “audience feedback” from outside the band.
        Or you may find it easier to practice in private by playing along with a CD/mp3 recording, so you can eliminate all of your concerns about mistakes.
        Or combine the best of both, live and private, by getting a digital file (or tape) of a group you've been playing with, so you can practice privately between live sessions with the group.
        While you're playing along with a live group or recording, experiment with cooperative interactions.  Try playing various functional roles, and experiment with different ways of deciding what to play and when.  Be aware of the overall situation (for you and your fellow musicians) and the musical details of what they have been doing, are doing, and might be doing soon.  Try to play with good taste and rhythmic precision, aim for creativity and quality, and enjoy whatever happens.  If you “play through” perceived mistakes, by yourself or others, you can develop and sustain a continuity (for the melody, rhythm, and harmony) that keeps the music flowing through time.*  And you can learn for the future, making it better by using the "master skill" of learning from experience.
        Ben Sidran describes the musical skill of graceful recovery from perceived mistakes, of responding in a way that is musically productive, that contributes to artistry & enjoyment for you, your fellow musicians, and those who are listening.  He explains that "You have to fail at something first – which is not a failure, but an opportunity.  They say jazz is the music of surprise, because you want to play what you don’t know, which means you have to make mistakes, and then recover from them.  Music is the act of recovery."

        Making Music — Improvisation and Composition

        This page begins by recommending that you "experiment in low-risk situations... and listen carefully for feedback, to discover what does and doesn't work well."  When you find something that "works well" during a musical improvisation, you may want to preserve the results of your creative discovery in a musical composition.  Basically, an improvisation becomes a composition when it is repeated in the same form, so its status changes from temporary to permanent.
        Because improvisation is on-the-spot composition, in real time while the music is happening, all skilled improvisers are skilled composers.  And some composers, continuing the tradition of J.S. Bach, are also skilled real-time improvisers, with an ability to perform well and produce pleasing music when they (and their listeners) do care about the quality of the music.
        You can preserve a composition — so it can be duplicated later by yourself or others — by writing it on a sheet of paper or, in modern times, by saving it in the memory of a computer or electronic instrument.  Or your improvisation can be recorded on tape or digitally, and then transcribed into a musical composition.
        Or you can just remember what you did, and then play it (or something like it) later.  With continued repetition you'll develop a collection of musical ideas that you can play, and you like to play, and these will become a part of your musical repertoire.
 

 
        Playing and Thinking
        How should you think (or not think) when you're making music?  Above, in Part 1 you've seen a variety of "psychological principles [and practical tips]... for letting yourself be creative," including these:
    • To reduce your self-consciousness, so you can feel more free to creatively explore different ways to make music, "experiment in low-risk situations... and listen carefully for feedback, ... just relax, listen, and learn."
    • Using a piano keyboard, "just begin pressing keys and making music."  Or you can limit your options by playing only the black or white keys, which makes it easier for you to play only the scale-notes in a musical key (pentatonic, major, or minor) and by "using one note as a home-note for your melodic wanderings."
    • Listen to a song (on radio, CD, mp3,...) and "sing along" with your voice, or "play along" with a musical instrument, with a variety of songs or with the same song repeatedly.  Singing lets you take advantage of your body's intuitive-and-automatic translation of ideas into sound.  And if you "sing without words" this may loosen some limits on your melodic creativity.  But if you play along with a musical instrument, you can use your personal skills in playing the instrument (especially the skills preserved in your muscle memories) and the special features of this instrument.
    • Try making music with different moods, feelings, and images.
    • Consider the possibilities for meeting the expectations of listeners, or surprising them, in whatever blend you want.  This principle is useful in music and in other areas of life.
    • Creatively experiment with a song's melody, harmony, and/or rhythm.
    • Prepare by building a solid foundation of skills and experience.
    • Instead of playing, just listen actively, alertly aware yet relaxed, in a process of discovery that lets you "hear more of what's happening in the music."  Listen to each instrument – asking “what is its function, what does it contribute, and how?” – and for the interactions between musicians.
    • Listen actively while you're playing, making real-time decisions.  Be aware of what other musicians have done, are doing, and might do soon.  Experiment with different ways of deciding what to play and when.  Aim for creativity and quality, in the musical role(s) you choose, and enjoy whatever happens;  “play through” perceived mistakes, by yourself or others, to sustain the continual flow of music.
    • If you record your improvising, you can convert improvisations into compositions.  Or you can simply remember musical ideas, and practice them until they become part of your musical repertoire.

Improvisation in Life

This section continues in an appendix that looks at principles for productive thinking (or not-thinking) in various contexts, when performing skills that are mental and/or physical, including musical improvisation (Music and Design) and many other skills (e.g. comedy improv) in many areas of life.

 


 
Part 2:
Improvising Music by Using Harmony

 
2A: Music Theory — Chords and Chord Progressions

This introduction to “making music with chord progressions” assumes that you know the basics of musical rhythm;  usually (but not always) there are 4 rhythmic beats in each bar of music, or 3 beats-per-bar in a waltz.   But if you don't the basics of musical harmony (scales & keys) and you're willing to invest a little time to learn, you can study the next section (2B - Music Theory) and then return to here.  Or you can simply continue onward, and learn what you can while you're reading each subsection, and that may be enough for you to understand most of the ideas.

        Earlier, in Harmonic Improvisation I suggested experimenting by "harmonizing with the main melody... or providing a bass line, counter-melody,..."
        Another strategy for harmonizing is to begin with harmony instead of a melody, and make up your own melody that “fits” with the harmony (with the chords in a chord progression), as explained below.

        Chord-Notes Sound Good Together — either Simultaneously or Sequentially
        If you simultaneously play the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a C-major scale (these notes are C, E, and G), this is a C-Major chord.  For physiological reasons explained in Science and Music, a combination of chord-notes (such as the major chord formed by C-E-G) will sound "harmonious" to most people, in most cultures — due to the physical interaction of the notes' overtones and the physiology of human ears — when the notes are played simultaneously to form a chord.  And when chord-notes are played sequentially in a melody (*) they sound "melodious" because we can remember the notes that have been played in a sequence of chord-notes that is called an arpegio.  For example, a melodic phrase using an arpegio (using chord notes) is the up-and-down CEGC'GEC sequence that uses only chord-notes, or (to avoid the bugle-like symmetry) some variation such as CEGC'EGC.  For variety in their melodies, musicians typically use some chord notes combined with some non-chord notes.
        When a musical improvisation includes non-chord notes (not just the notes of a chord, such as CEG) instead of pleasant consonance we hear some dissonance.  A perception of dissonance can occur when the mixed combination (with some chord notes and some non-chord notes) is played simultaneously in a harmony or is played sequentially in a melody.  Of course, an experience of dissonance is in the ear (and mind) of a listener, who can perceive it as being unpleasant or pleasant, to some degree, depending on the type of non-chord notes and their timings — are all of the notes, chordal and non-chordal, being played simultaneously (this is more likely to produce a feeling of dissonance) or sequentially (more likely to be experienced as interesting variety) — and the person's own musical taste, which is influenced by personal history, general culture, and current mood.   A personal response to dissonance also depends on duration;  temporary dissonance adds a spicy edge to music, but if harmonic tension continues for too long it can become unpleasant, even obnoxiously irritating.
        In addition to physical interactions (with some overtones of chord-notes “matching and blending” physically in a major chord), music involves psychological interactions between music-making and music-hearing, between musicians and audience, with a blending of anticipations and mysteries in music.  If we played only chord-notes in a sequential melody, after awhile this might become boring.  Or it might not, if the notes were sequenced in a very creative way (melodically and rhythmically) or (more commonly) if the chord shifts occasionally between a C-chord, F-chord, and G-chord, as in a chord progression of 12-Bar Blues explained below.  But when we include some non-chord notes, in a chord or (especially) in a melody, it adds spice to the music and variety for the listener.

      Major and Minor:  The 3 notes of a C-Major chord are C/E/G.  In a minor scale the third note is a half-step lower, so a C-Minor chord is C/E-flat/G.    {more about a minor scale}

        Creative Melodic Uses of Harmony
        During your melodic experiments with harmony, here are some possibilities:  "A common view of what a jazz soloist does could be expressed thus:  as the harmonies go by, he selects notes from each chord, out of which he fashions a melody.  He is free to embellish by means of passing and neighbor tones, and he may add extensions to the chords, but at all times a good improviser must follow the changes. ... [However], a jazz musician really has several options:  he may reflect the chord progression exactly, he may "skim over" the progression and simply elaborate the background harmony, or he may fashion his own voice-leading which may clash at some points with the chords the rhythm section is playing."   {from "Toward a Theory of Pop Harmony" by Peter Winkler in the journal Theory Only (May-June 1978, pages 3–26)}  {many of these ideas, and others, are explained in How to Improvise Jazz Melodies by Bob Keller}
        Above, I recommend the use of some non-chord tones — which Peter Winkler calls passing tones and neighbor tones in his explanation of how a musician can "select notes from each chord, out of which he fashions a melody" — as part of your freedom to create melodic variety, as one aspect of "creatively experimenting with a song's melody, harmony, and/or rhythm."
        In some ways, making your own music is simple because you can "just relax, listen, and learn."  But a fascinating complexity is possible if you want to explore the many available options for making music (as in the above description by Peter Winkler, which despite its depth only skims the surface), along with the mental-and-physical interactions between your brain-and-body while you're improvising, as outlined at the end of Part 1 in a brief examination of Thinking and Playing.

        Chord Progressions (in 12-Bar Blues and beyond)
        Almost all songs use a sequence of chords to form a harmonic structure for producing melodies that (as described above) are a mixture of notes inside the current chord and outside it, with both weaved together in melodically pleasing ways.
        A common chord progression (to provide a harmonic structure) is 12-Bar Blues.  In the key of C, the chords for this 12-bar progression are "CCCC FFCC GFCC".  Usually each bar lasts 4 counts, so the whole 12-bar chord progression (CP) is 48 counts.  If you want to practice improvising based on a CP of 12-Bar Blues, use a piano or guitar (played by you or a friend) to record this sequence of chords (in the key of C or another key), repeating it many times;  then play this recording and sing along (or play an instrument) to find out which notes and note-combinations sound good with a particular chord*, how to make smooth transitions from one chord to another, and how to make a "turnaround" on the final two C-chords so the 6 consecutive bars of C-chords are clearly divided into 2 bars (ending one 12-bar CP) and 4 bars (beginning the next CP of 12 bars).
        * While you're experimenting and listening for what “sounds good” you can begin by trying to play mostly chord notes (C E G for a C-major chord, F A C for an F-major chord, G B D for a G-major chord) along with occasional non-chord notes.  Later, after you intuitively “get the feel” of how to merge these melodies (focused on chord-notes) with the changing chords, your melodic experiments can explore a wider range of creativity.

        A basic blues progression is "CCCC FFCC GFCC" in the key of C.  To make analogous chord progressions for 12-Bar Blues in other keys, just move all of the chords up or down by the same amount.  For example, in the key of D each chord is raised a full tone, so the C-chords, F-chords, and G-chords (the chords built on the 1st, 4th and 5th scale-notes in the key of C) become D-chords, G-chords, and A-chords (the corresponding 1st, 4th and 5th chords in the key of D).    { On guitar, a good blues key is E, using the chords E, A, and B7: EEEE AAEE BAEE.  But wind instruments, keys closer to C - of keys with flats, like F - are easier for most musicians, so maybe guitarists can "play in E" but move it up to F (using a capo) so it's good for everyone. }
        Other Chord Progressions:  There are many variations on 12-Bar Blues, made by replacing the basic major chords (1, 4 and 5) with similar functionally related chords (substituting B7 for B, and so on), and in other ways, using chords other than 1, 4 and 5.  Another simple progression — using only the 1, 4 and 5 chords — is "CFCG CFGC".  In jazz, and in other types of music, skilled musicians typically use chord progressions that are more complex.  You can use chord progressions that you learn from other musicians or from a songbook.  Or just experiment, listen, and learn, to invent your own progressions.

        A Universal Musical Language:  You can gather a group of jazz musicians (or pop/rock musicians) from all over the world, say "play 12-Bar Blues in F" and instantly they will be making music together, with skill, because chords (and common chord progressions) are a shared language of music they all understand.

 
        Chord-Notes on a Colorized Keyboard
        If you have a keyboard the following visual strategy may be useful:  The color-coded keyboard below shows the chord-notes for C-major (red), F-major (blue), and G-major (green).  To improvise, during the C-chord part of a 12-bar chord progression in the first 4 bars, you could play mainly the red notes (the chord notes for a C-chord) mixed with occasional other white notes (that aren't in a C-chord) for variety, and maybe (usually as transitions between white notes) some black notes.  When the chord progression shifts to F-chords during the 5th and 6th measures, you can shift to “mainly blue notes” (the chord-notes for an F-chord) plus other notes for variety, and during the G-chord (in the 9th measure) play “mainly the green notes” that are in a G-chord.  As usual, while you're learning how to improvise, don't worry about making mistakes.  Instead, listen for feedback (so you can evaluate the results to discover what sounds good to your ears) while you relax and enjoy the process of experimenting, listening, and learning.

        I mark my keyboards with press-on colored dots.  To play in another key (besides C), either ignore the dots or (my preference) use the transposing feature (available on most modern electronic keyboards) to shift every note you play up or down by the same amount.  For example, you can play a melody in the key of C, and then punch the button for +1 transposing (which shifts all notes up by one semi-tone, from C to C#) and when you play the same melody (by using the same keys as before) you'll be playing in the key of C# with every note automatically increased in pitch by one semitone.  In this way, you can focus your attention on learning how to play well in the key of C, since you don't have to learn how to cope with C# and its 7 sharps! (which also can be viewed as D-flat with 5 flats)     { This Music-by-Color Improvising System was invented by me in the early-1970s, with Copyright ©1998 [the first time it was published on the web] by Craig Rusbult, all rights reserved. }
 


 
2B: Music Theory —
Musical Scales [simplified and systematic]

Below, Section 2B is a different perspective on Section 2A which explains harmony-improvising ideas.
If you play a major scale beginning on C, you'll use only the white keys on a piano keyboard, with no sharps or flats:

C major:

 C

 C#

 D

 D#

 E

 F

 F#

 G

 G#

 A

 A#

 B

 C

 
But if you play the analogous major scale beginning on any other note, you'll need to use one or more black keys.

For example, beginning on G requires the use of F-sharp (4-sharp in key of C),
while beginning on D requires the use of F-sharp and C-sharp:

key & note  1    2   3  4  4#  5    6   7  1
 C major: 

 C

 C#

 D

 D#

 

 F

 F#

 G

 G#

 A

 A#

 

 C

 G major: 

 G

 G#

 A

 A#

 

 C

 C#

 D

 D#

 E

 

 F#

 G

 D major: 

 D

 D#

 E

 

 F#

 G

 G#

 A

 A#

 B

 

 C#

 D

  Or, moving in "the other direction" the key of F requires B-flat (7-flat in key of C).

The relationships between sharps and flats for each major scale are summarized in the table below, with sharped notes symbolized by #, and flatted notes by ♭.  If you already know some music theory, or if you're good at recognizing patterns, you'll be able to find several ways to make sense out of it.  If you're in a mood for exploring, scroll the screen to hide the paragraph below the table, and first try to find the patterns by yourself, before looking at the written explanation.

B # F♭
E # E # C♭ C♭
A # A # A # G♭ G♭ G♭
D # D # D # D # D♭ D♭ D♭ D♭
G # G # G # G # G # A♭ A♭ A♭ A♭ A♭
C # C # C # C # C # C # E♭ E♭ E♭ E♭ E♭ E♭
F # F # F # F # F # F # F # B♭ B♭ B♭ B♭ B♭ B♭ B♭
7
 sharps 
6
 sharps 
5
 sharps 
4
 sharps 
3
 sharps 
2
 sharps 
1
 sharp 
no sharps
or flats

1
 flat 
2
 flats 
3
 flats 
4
 flats 
5
 flats 
6
 flats 
7
 flats 
 key of 
C#
 key of 
F#
 key of 
B

 key of
E

 key of 
A
 key of 
D
 key of 
G
 key of 
C
 key of 
F
 key of 
B♭
 key of 
E♭
 key of 
A♭
 key of 
D♭

 key of 
G♭

 key of 
C♭

 

PATTERNS:  Notice the note-patterns in the bottom row, for the keys (moving horizontally) and (moving vertically) for the order of adding both flats (beadgcf) and sharps (beadgcf reversed).  Also notice that the three chords used for 12-Bar Blues in the key of C (C, F and G) are next to each other in a 5-1-4 order.  This 5-1-4 relationship also occurs for other keys.  For example, in the bottom row the keys of B, E, and A are next to each other in the bottom row, and these are the 5th, 1st, and 4th chords for a blues-progression in E.

Also, notice that F# and G♭ are the same notes.  Therefore, as you would expect, the keys of F # (with 6 sharps) and G♭ (6 flats) have the same scale-notes in them;  compare the seven scale-notes and see for yourself.   Similarly, C # and D♭ are the same note, so the keys of C # (with 7 sharps) and D♭ (5 flats) contain the same scale-notes.

Another opportunity for pattern recognition is The Mathematics of Musical Harmony
which shows why major chords “sound good” to us, and why (due to human physiology and
psychology) major chords are used in the music of almost every culture, in every part of the world.
 


 
For the natural minor scale
(other scale-variations are harmonic minor and melodic minor)
three notes (the 3rd, 6th, and 7th) are a half-tone lower
than in the corresponding major scale.
Compare the C-major and C-minor scales below, and you'll see a
flatted third ( E → E♭), sixth ( A → A♭), and seventh ( B → B♭).

 C major:

 C

 D♭

 D

 E♭

 E 

 F

 G♭

 G

 A♭

 A 

 B♭

 B

 C

 C minor:

 C

 D♭

 D

 E♭

 

 F

 G♭

 G

 A♭

 

 B♭

 B

 C

 On a keyboard, play a C-major scale and C-minor scale, and listen to the difference.

For minor scales, the key with no sharps or flats (so it can be played
using only white keys on a keyboard, as with C major) is A minor:
 A minor:

 A

 B♭

 B  

 C

 D♭

 D

 E♭

 E  

 F

G♭

 G

 A#

 A

 
 
Here are the MINOR KEYS, ranging from 7 sharps to 7 flats:
7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
A# D# G# C# F# B E A D G C F B♭ E♭ A♭
 
 Compare these with analogous MAJOR KEYS, from 7 sharps to 7 flats:
7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C# F# B E A D G C F B♭ E♭ A♭ D♭ G♭ C♭

For minor scales the key with no sharps or flats is A-minor, and for major scales it's C-major.
Notice that the BEADGCF pattern is the same for minor keys and major keys, but is shifted,
so the 5-1-4 pattern (with the 5,1, and 4 chords next to each other) is also the same:
E-A-D and A-D-G and D-G-C,... are in a 5-1-4 pattern for the minor keys, and
are in the same pattern (but with position shifted) for the major keys.


The simplest chords are formed from the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a scale:
C-major chord:    C    E     G
C-minor chord:    C   E♭   G
A-minor
chord:    A    C    E

Earlier, in Part 2A there is a color-coded keyboard for C-major.
Here is the analogous color coding for A-minor, with chord-notes for the
1st, 4th, and 5th notes of the scale (A, D, and E) in red, blue, and green:

Because the colored dots for minor keys are higher up on the keys,
both sets of dots (for major & minor) can be used on the same keyboard.

If you want, try playing along with a chord progression that is
analogous to those described earlier but with minor chords:
play "a a a a d d a a e d a a"  or  "a d a e a d e a"  or ...
 


APPENDIX

Learning from Experience — how to excel in welding (or music or anything else)
        One of the most powerful master skills is knowing how to learn.  The ability to learn can itself be learned, as illustrated by a friend who, in his younger days, had an interesting strategy for work and play.  He worked for awhile at a high-paying job and saved money, then took a vacation.  He was free to wake when he wanted, read a book, hang out at a coffee shop, go for a walk, or travel to faraway places by hopping on a plane or driving away in his car.
        Usually, employers want workers committed to long-term stability, so why did they tolerate his unusual behavior?  He was reliable, always showed up on time, and gave them a week's notice before departing.  But the main reason for their acceptance was the quality of his work.  He was one of the best welders in Seattle, performing a valuable service that was in high demand, and doing it extremely well.  He could audition for a job, saying "give me a really tough welding challenge and I'll show you how good I am."  They did, he did, and they hired him.
        How did he become such a good welder?  He had "learned how to learn" by following the wise advice of his teacher, "every time you do a welding job, do it better than the time before."  Or, in my expanded version, every time you do a welding job, do it better than the time before.  One strategy is to learn from the past and concentrate in the present.  Or, if you're alertly aware of what you're doing now (and how this is affecting the quality of welding) your awareness may help you do it better the next time, so you'll be intentionally learning from the present to prepare for the future.   Here is a basic approach: Always aim for quality of thinking-and-action in the present, and sometimes ask "what have I learned in the past that will help me now, and what can I learn now that will help me in the future?"   This is a good strategy for learning (from experience) how to improve welding, and for improving most other things in life.    { MORE – Learning from Experience` can improve your Learning-Performing-Enjoying` in a wide variety of life-activities`. }


        Strategies for Improving Skills
        We use a process of problem-solving design` for "almost everything in life," whenever we are designing a better product, activity, strategy, or theory.  I think this claim about "everything" is justified because a common use of design is to develop strategies that are mental and/or physical.  "In a mental strategy you make decisions about the actions you will do, and then you actualize the strategy by applying it to do these actions.  A physical strategy is similar, but there is a more direct connection between deciding and doing, with more emphasis on the quality of doing when you apply the strategy."  One example of a mental-and-physical strategy is A Problem-Solving Approach to Improving Pronunciation` when learning a foreign language:

In this problem-solving approach you use Quality Checks (the essence of Design Method) by comparing your actual pronunciation with the goal-pronunciation you want, and doing whatever is required — by “experimenting” with the way you are speaking — to move your actual speaking-sounds in the direction of the goal-sounds you want.  In pursuing these goal-sounds, some conscious thinking may be useful, but your main focus is on the results, on the sound that you produce by applying the “physical strategies” that your body (your mouth, tongue, lips, vocal chords,...) is using when it makes physical adjustments in its attempts to achieve the sounds you want.  You are mainly focusing on improving the results of strategy-application, not the strategy itself.
        When you are developing a mental-and-physical strategy for a skill (such as pronouncing words) the balance between mental and physical varies from one skill to another.  If your goal is to improve a backhand stroke in tennis, you consciously decide some broad features of a skill-strategy (what kind of grip you will use, with one hand or two,...) but most details of the skill-strategy are determined by your body, when it “does experiments” and you observe the results, and you make adjustments (consciously & unconsciously) in response, in an attempt to achieve your goals for the backhand stroke.
        The process of learning by observing-and-improving is similar (but with some adaptations) for a wide range of skill-strategies, such as running or dancing, throwing a ball, driving a car, or making music.

        Learning Strategies for Music
        If you want to improve your skills in musical improvisation, a useful application of design (and thus Design Method) is a Learning Strategy that is a process of design in which you observe-and-improve.  A process of design — by making a Plan (choosing a Skill-Strategy), then using the Strategy so you can Observe the results and then Evaluate the Strategy (and your actions in Strategy-Application), so you can Make a New Plan — forms a cycle (Plan, Observe, Evaluate, Plan,...) that lets you continually improve the quality of your learning and performing.
        This process of design is a Strategy for Thinking, to improve Learning and/or Performing  Above, you saw one application of a Learning Strategy, for the mental-and-physical skill of pronunciation.  With suitable adjustments, you also can use this Learning Strategy for the mental-and-physical skill of musical improvisation.  My most complete description of a Learning Strategy (it's a Design of Thinking Strategies`) is its application for the skill of learning from lectures, which is mainly mental.   But the same principles — using a cycle of design that lets you observe and improve — can be used for any mental skill or mental-and-physical skill, including musical improvisation.    { I.O.U. — Eventually, I want to write Thinking-and-Action Strategies for various aspects of music, ranging from long tones (discussed in my page for "... Improving Pronunciation") to improvisation & composition & performance (music covers a very wide range of physical-and-mental Strategies and Strategy-Actualizations) — but I have not yet done this. }

        Design and Music
        In the context of musical improvisation, the objective of a design project could be a product (such as a skilled improvisation during a particular song, which is preserved by recording it or converting it into a composition), activity (e.g. a live performance for an audience), strategy (for improving your skill in improvising, or in some other aspect of music), or theory (about effective ways to improve your musical skills and musical results).
        You may find that sometimes a conscious use of design process will stimulate creativity-with-quality when you Define Goals (for characteristics you want in your music), Generate Options (by imagining, remembering, revising), and Evaluate Options (by listening, and comparing what you hear with your goals).  But at other times, does just "letting it flow, without conscious control" produce different results?  Maybe you can get the best of both strategies by using on-and-off metacognition, as explained below.

        Using Metacognition to Stimulate Creativity, or Allow Creativity
        In my Overview of Design Method the concluding Part 3b — about ways to more effectively use metacognition (this occurs when we "think about thinking") in a process of design — the section about Optimal Performance by Regulating Metacognition` (with "Performance and/or Learning" on the left side, and Metacognitive Regulation on right side) seems especially useful for musical improvisation.  It begins by explaining the benefits of On-and-Off Metacognition, by developing strategies for effectively avoiding, using, and regulating metacognition:
Sometimes your best strategy is to go with the flow and allow productive thinking.  But in other situations you'll want to stimulate productive thinking by consciously making plans or finding strategies.  If you develop an accurate knowledge of yourself and your situations, this will help you regulate metacognition by turning it on and off, to maximize its actual positive effects (in helping you improve your thinking, learning, and performance) and minimize its potential negative effects (in being a distracting Interference that will reduce Performance) in an effort to achieve optimal benefits. ... A valuable metacognitive skill is knowing yourself (and your situations) well enough to know when to use metacognition, and how to use it, so it will be optimally beneficial.
And it ends with "Inner Game" principles (Performance = Potential - Interference) for optimizing performance.
    One factor in knowing your "situations" is deciding, for a situation, whether your main objective is "optimal performance (by doing in the present) or optimal education (by learning for the future)," as explained below.

        Two Objectives — Performance and Education
        A friend became an expert welder` by following the wise advice of his teacher: “Every time you do a welding job, do it better than the time before.”  How?  Remember what you've learned from past experience;  always concentrate in the present so you can accurately-and-thoroughly observe what you are doing and how your thinking-and-action is affecting the quality of your work.  This now-focus will help you do a better job now, and you'll also learn more now that will help you in the future.  But...
        There can be a tension between two types of objectives:  • when you're doing an important job, so you're on-task with a performance objective, your goal is to always concentrate on quality of thinking-and-action in the present, which sometimes involves metacognitively asking “how can I do it better” and “what have I learned in the past that will help me now?”, and occasionally you'll ask “what can I learn now that will help me in the future?”;  • but at other times in life you'll be on-task with a personal education objective, when asking “what can I learn now?” is the top priority.
        For example, in this page the first suggestion is to "experiment in low-risk situations when nobody (not you or anyone else) cares about the quality or klunkers" so you can just "relax, listen, and learn."  This can be an effective way to learn when your goal is education, but it probably would not be wise for an important concert when your main goal is performance.

I hope you find these ideas interesting, with many exciting areas for deeper exploration.  It should be obvious that I'm excited about musical ideas, as part of my more general enthusiasm for Educational Ideas - Thinking, Learning, and Teaching.  But developing ideas requires time, which is limited, and in the near future (as explained in the IOU above) many of my plans will remain dreams for the future.  But there are plenty of fascinating musical possibilities for you to explore — above and below in this page, and in many other ways — and I hope you will continue exploring and will enjoy the adventure.

 

 The appendix above, about Learning from Experience, is part
of a page about Motivations and Strategies for Learning that
explains how I didn't learn to ski (and then did learn)` and more.

Top of This Page for "Musical Improvisation: using Creativity + Music Theory"

Bamboo Flutes:
Mother Earth News published two articles ( 1 and 2 ) written by Marc Bristol,
based on interviews with me, about The Art & Science of Making Bamboo Flutes.
It also was Engineering, in a Design Project.  My problem-solving strategies and actions
while making & selling flutes are outlined in A Process of Designing Bamboo Flutes
in my website about Using Design Process for Problem Solving and Education.
 A traditional 6-hole bamboo flute can play only the 7 notes of a major (or minor) scale, but 
I invented a 9-hole fingering system so a musician can play three extra notes ( 3♭, 4 # , 7♭)
that are useful for playing blues (
with 3♭) and (with 4 # , 7♭) in the two most closely-related keys.

 The Science & Mathematics of Music: Harmony and Acoustics
that links to my page about
The Mathematics of Musical Harmony - Why do chords sound pleasantly "harmonious"?

Also, in a different artistic sense-mode, The Science of Color links to pages that
include my Brightness, Hue, and Saturation with a strategy for "splitting out the white."

For most of my life, I've been fascinated by Art-Science and Sport-Science.
Running Tempo & Music Tempo plus My Juggling Video and Do-It-Yourself Juggling


This page – Improvising Music by using Creativity & Music Theory – is
http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/teach/music.htm
Copyright © 1998 (with subsequent revisions) by Craig Rusbult,
with all rights reserved, including keyboard color-coding.

It's in an area about Science in the Arts being developed by the author,
who is editor for a website about Whole-Person Education.

top of page (Part 1)  and  Part 2