The Value of Improvisation in Pop Songwriting

Improvisation is a vital part of pop song structure, and should be practiced daily.


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Guitar DuoThere’s an interesting difference between the performance of pop music and Classical music, and it’s this: any one performance of a piece Classical music all sound note-for-note the same as any other performance of it. But the various performances of a pop song will often (even usually) have significant differences. This is primarily due to the improvisatory nature of pop music. When done well, pop musicians often create music on the spur of the moment.

This often doesn’t apply to music that involves computer programming of the instrumental tracks, but for any music that involves live instrumentalists, we look forward to the improvised touch.

With today’s Classical composers, improvisation is taking on a more important role. That aside, it’s still generally true that every note that’s heard by the audience is one that is written down. Any differences between various performances or recordings of, say, a Beethoven symphony, are attributable to the quality of the players, and slight differences in what’s called interpretation. So when someone says, “I’ve just bought the best recording ever of Beethoven’s 5th..”, what they mean is that they like the interpretation (the tempo, the way the dynamics are controlled, etc.), and they like the sound of the orchestra as an ensemble. No one improvises anything in the performance of the Classical greats.

In pop music genres, the songwriter usually writes the melody, the chordal accompaniment, and the lyric. Sometimes they’ll write a backing instrumental part, like brass riffs, or a string ensemble part, and those will usually be “cast in stone”, unchanging from one performance to the next. But everything else — the drums, the guitars, keyboards and bass — will change from one performance to the next, and we like it that way.

I’m bringing this up because it’s important to remember that improvisation is an important part of the very structure pop music. If you’re a songwriter, trying improvisation exercises every day, either sitting with your guitar or at a keyboard, can help you develop songwriting ideas.

Improvisation can happen in many different ways, but the basic idea is usually something simple: sit down with another guitarist or keyboard player. One of you plays a standard chord progression while the other improvises melodic ideas over the chords. Switch back and forth, trading ideas. (I recently became aware of a $2.99 iPhone app called Bandades that easily allows for this kind of improvisation, where teh app plays the chords, and you play the solo. Read about it here (and even if you aren’t a guitarist, the promo video is hilarious)).

By improvising, you require your musical brain to generate ideas quickly. If you aren’t a guitarist, you can do the same thing at a keyboard. Or even just singing ideas to yourself unaccompanied will work.

In any case, the point is that while this kind of improvisation is great to improve your instrumental abilities, it also creates all sorts of musical ideas that can become the seed for a new song. Serious songwriters should consider improvisation activities to be a crucial part of improving songwriting skills.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Excuse me but your first statement is.Highly fallacious. A classical piece will sound completely different depending on many variable that far exceed those of any pop band. Conductor, each and every player, the soloist, not to mention all the various interpretations. According to you, notes are all that make a song. That is only a part of a composition. No offense, but this is just not true in anyway. On the other hand pop music, although may have lots of improve or looser rules, on the surface may sound different but the basic structure of even the most complex of pop songs is incredibly simple in comparison to a classical composition.

    • You’ve simply reiterated what I said in my post: “Any differences between various performances or recordings of, say, a Beethoven symphony, are attributable to the quality of the players, and slight differences in what’s called interpretation. ”

      You really need to read more than the first paragraph of a blog post if you’re going to make a comment.

  2. Pingback: FEATURED LINK: The Value of Improvisation in Pop Songwriting | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

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