Quick Tips

How to Improvise on Piano

By Hoffman Academy Team
Learning how to improvise on piano.

Why learn how to improvise on piano? Hoffman Academy instructor Stephanie will tell you!

Learning to play other people’s music is great, but it’s only half the fun! Learn about how to improvise on piano below.

Music is a language

When you’re learning another language, do you only read and recite in that language? That would be missing out on a lot of what language can do! Instead, you use the vocabulary and rules you learn in order to have conversations and tell your own stories. 

The language of music should be approached the same way. It’s great to learn how to sight read and play by ear, but to be fluent, students need to feel comfortable and confident creating their OWN music. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it seems! Like any skill, piano improvisation can be learned. It just takes a little practice and some assurance. When you’re improvising there are NO right or wrong notes. Just like a conversation, you play whatever you want to express!

What is piano improvisation?

Improvisation means playing something on the piano that you’ve never heard or seen before. It’s different from playing by ear, where you play notes to match music you’ve heard, and from sight reading, where you play notes that match what you see on a written score. It’s different from playing by memory, where you’ve studied and practiced a piece of music enough that it’s recorded in your mind. All of these many ways to make music are great, but what’s special about improvising is that you’re playing music that comes from you, in the very moment that you’re playing it.

Are there rules or techniques for improvisation?

When you’re sitting at home, just you and the piano, of course there are no rules! Make sounds and have fun! The only rules are the rules you make up for yourself. That being said, coming up with some rules for your improvisation session can make it even more fun and help you grow as a musician.

If you’re new to improvisation, a fun rule to try is “play black keys only.” The black keys form a pentatonic scale of intervals that all sound pretty good together. You simply can’t go wrong!

If you’re improvising a melody, here’s an important technique. Use repetition! Once you’ve improvised a short phrase of music, repeat it once or twice. Then develop it by changing a few of the notes, or playing your musical phrase higher or lower in the scale. Using repetition will make your improvisation seem more intentional and less like a string of notes that you’re picking at random.

Learning how to improvise on piano with practice

Learning how to improvise on piano is a complex skill that can be broken down into smaller parts. As you develop each of the skills that goes into improvisation individually, your overall ability to improvise will increase dramatically!

A great way to start is by improvising not with the piano, but with your voice! A fun music improvisation game to play is to have a singing conversation with a friend or member of your family. Instead of talking, sing simple phrases like, “Good morning, how are you feeling today?” If you don’t have someone to play the game with, you can sing improvised melodies to yourself when you’re alone, too. It’s a fun way to pass the time when doing chores around the house or working in the yard. 

When you’re learning to improvise on piano, start with one hand at a time. Try to hear in your head what you want the music to sound like before you play it. For melodies, begin with repeated notes and steps (2nd intervals), then add skips (3rds), and larger intervals as you become more confident. 

Another good way to build your improvisation skills is by playing a recording of a song or piece of music you like and improvising a piano part to go along with it. Start by adding a short, simple line of notes to what you hear. It can be a bass line down low, or a little bit of melody added on up high. For a great place to begin, try the Hoffman Academy Practice Album. Every song on the album includes an improvisation section for students to play along with by playing anything they want!

When you first start out improvising with both hands, be sure to keep it simple. Choose a single chord and repeat it in one hand while you improvise a simple melody in the other. For example, your left hand can play a chord made up of the notes C and G. Play that chord over and over while your right hand improvises a melody that uses the notes C, D, E, and G. When that feels comfortable, try repeating a simple pattern using two or more different chords as you improvise a melody throughout the scale. You can learn more about piano chords here.

Explore and discover through improvisation

Improvising is a great way to explore and discover what you’re good at and what you like. As you improvise, you should be listening and evaluating what you hear. Through improvisation, you can intentionally or unintentionally create sounds and harmonies that you’ve never heard before! It doesn’t have to sound good or bad, and the more you do it, you’ll start to learn how to make the sounds you want to make. 

Learning how to improvise on piano is also a great way to experiment with new music theory or technical concepts. For example, if you’re learning about intervals, one idea is to improvise using only certain intervals. You’ll not only better learn what each interval sounds like, but you’ll also get really good at playing them as well. Or, if your teacher has taught you about wrist rotation, then what better way to integrate that into your technique than by improvising with it!

Ready to get started?

Check out Hoffman Academy Lesson 2 for a great introduction to improvisation for beginners. Premium Membership gives you access to our Practice Album, too – an excellent resource for improvising with the songs you’ve learned! 

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