What is improvisation?

Have you ever wondered what people mean when they refer to ‘improvisation’? Is improvisation just to do with playing jazz?

In the first of this brand new blog series we’ve got the thoughts from 10 of our contributors to our Curious Symposium. See if you can spot the themes running throughout the answers.

improvisation tips


Let’s start with what it isn’t: it isn’t jazz and blues – these styles use improvisation inherently, but Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, the list is endless, were all improvisers and we should avoid the trap of learning licks and tricks and calling it improvising.

So then, what is it? In music it is the ability to take an idea (set of chords; a melody; theme) and from this create a coherent musical statement. The comparison with literature might be the ability to take a character and weave a story around them. Or, to simply tell a joke.


I use it to refer to any kind of music making that includes choosing the notes one plays. So, it can mean anything from unstructured doodling to “filling out” a lead sheet, to embellishing a melody, jamming on a chord progression, to creating a jazz solo or cadenza…  My definition of the way I teach jazz is a little more specific: “Jazz is an approach to making music (not a style) that involves reading and improvising over specific rhythmic feels within a given harmonic context.”


Improvisation is making something up “on the spot” – anything really. For example, comedians have “improv nights” where they get up and act out funny skits based on topics that are called out by the audience. You can even “improvise” when you’re using your imagination to create a substitute for something. Last week, I had to fix my bicycle but was missing a part… so I improvised by using something I had in my house and some adhesive, and CREATED the missing part. So in essence, improvisation is being creative right there on the spot!

One point that I think is overlooked is that improvisation doesn’t necessarily mean “soloing.” Another important form of improvisation at the keyboard is learning to play accompaniments for singers or (other instrumentalists), based solely on chord charts. In this instance, the pianist is improvising an accompaniment, rather than improvising a solo part. This type of improvisation requires that the pianist have a certain “vocabulary” at the keyboard, and understands how to create fills while the singer is between phrases, etc. While it takes some time to develop this skill, it can also be taught at very early levels, by having students slowly become comfortable with the topography of the keyboard through technical work on chords, chord inversions, and some basic LH accompaniment patterns.”


Making things up instead of reading them.


If one is classically trained, it would mean playing music that is not written in the score.


Improvisation is a cumbersome five-syllable word that could easily be replaced with a friendly one-syllable word: play. To improvise is to play. When improvising music, we play with tones and gestures—we are both the dancer and the dance music.

Another way to think of it: Improvisation is musical speech. Using the materials and patterns of music as our vocabulary, we “speak” our feelings in this moment, express them, sound them out.  This is so different from reading a script or reciting a score by memory.


If we compare the process of learning music to acquiring language, we can say that improvisation is like conversing. It’s spontaneous communication using sound.


An improvisation is a spontaneous act, performed in response to the mood of the moment, without pre-meditation.


For me, the basis of improvisation comes from the melody. In jazz, this is called the ‘head’ and is played first before moving into the improvisation repeats – or ‘variations’ if you like – on that melody. So the challenge of improvising is to explore different interpretations of that melody line, within the style of the piece.


Improvisation is one of the ways in which performers can express themselves. Its essence is found in the ability of a musician (or any artist) to be spontaneous. Often, however it will have as its basis some type of stimulus.


Many of our symposium contributors shared one starter idea for improvisation guaranteed to work! Here’s two suggestions from Andrew Higgins – why not give them a go next week even if you haven’t tried anything like this before?

Andrew suggests:

  1. For a beginner take those simple primary triads they meet at grade 1 and play them all over the piano – like arpeggios, through the hands, left then right – ascending and descending – method books old and new are full of pieces that do this, but this technique needs no notation – it can be ‘improvised’ students love it.
  2. For more advanced students I take the Bach C major prelude and teach them the circle of fifths using the pattern he suggests. It takes months but once learnt they have a practical command of this magical theoretical concept: they know all the dominants, all the sevenths, all the key relationships: but more than this, they can play them!

CLICK HERE to find out more about Andrew’s book: So you want to learn to improvise?

So improvisation is spontaneous, it’s like musical speech, its a form of expression, of conveying the mood of the moment. What’s your number 1 take-away from this week’s blog post? We’d love you to comment below!

NEXT WEEK… Join our symposium panellists as they ponder the question: ‘Why should we all be including improvisation regularly in our piano lessons?”

This blog post was compiled by Dr Sally Cathcart, co-founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers




2 thoughts on “What is improvisation?

  1. Marilyn Lowe

    I use improvisation all the time. The Music Moves for Piano curriculum is fundamentally a ‘how to’ improvise curriculum. That said, my definition of improvisationis: “Creating something new out of the familiar.”

  2. Cheron M

    Andrew Higgins gave an inspiring presentation on Creative Piano Playing at the Epta Corporate Day. I’m already using his exercises in my lessons and finding his step by step guide in So You Want To Learn To Improvise really helpful.


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