Improvising happens in every genre of music you can name, some genres more than others. A jazz concert will likely feature improvisation as a key element in practically every song. In that case, we usually mean a sax player or guitarist that might take a solo.
But improvisation, of course, happens in every sub-genre of pop music, in the sense that no one (or practically no one) is reading music. Everyone is making something up, even if it’s deciding on the spur of the moment which chord voicings to use when playing the backing instrumentation.
The genre you think about the least when it comes to improvisation is Classical music. You don’t really imagine composers or performers making music up on the fly. But that most certainly did happen.
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Mozart is a good case in point. When he was composing piano music for which he was to be the performer, he would often leave long stretches of music uncomposed, knowing that he could improvise those missing bits during the performance itself. That takes gall!
As a songwriter, hopefully you have discovered that the best way to generate ideas for use in songs you’re writing is to improvise. It’s the immediacy of musical ideas — the spontaneous and quick generation of melodies, chords and lyrics — that winds up being most valuable.
The very word improvise almost implies that there’s no wrong way to do it. Just get your fingers and your voice going, and see what happens. You’ll toss the ideas that don’t sound good, and keep the ones that do.
But in case you’d like to have some guidance for what improvisation could be doing for you, here are some tips that can help:
- Don’t necessarily improvise everything at once. Making up the chords, melodic ideas and singing out random bits of lyrics may not be the best way to go. Try this: set up a looping chord progression with backing rhythms, and then concentrate on creating melodies. Once you’ve got something you like, loop that, and try improvising lyrics. Concentrating on one thing at a time can allow you to focus.
- Try unmetered improvising. Most music you hear use a specific time signature, often 4/4. But try this: improvise with your guitar or keyboard in such a way that a time signature isn’t obvious. Music improvised this way will often sound ethereal and contemplative. It’s easy to imagine that Robert Lamm’s opening piano solo for “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” (Chicago Transit Authority) was largely the result of an unmetered keyboard improvisation. Rhythms are clear, but the time signature is largely ambiguous. By abandoning the time signature, you can concentrate on the sounds and complex harmonies without worrying about meter-related issues.
- Improvise on unfamiliar instruments. One of the biggest impediments to pure improvising is muscle memory: having your fingers always moving to familiar spots. While that can be a bonus for creating ideas quickly, try this: improvise on instruments you don’t normally play. This frees you up from having your fingers always going to predictable chords and intervals. Don’t worry if you can’t play the instrument well; this isn’t a concert.
- Start every songwriting session with an improvisation. This can be a great solution for writer’s block. Just get the ideas flowing, and you’ll eventually come across music that you’ll want to use in your session.
- Make improvisation a group activity. If you play in a band, start rehearsals with an improvisation. It’s musically exciting to create ideas that are a response to something you’ve heard someone else play. As long as someone shows up with a small snippet of a chord progression, melody or backing rhythm, the ideas should flow quickly and naturally.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundles cover every aspect of songwriting technique. How to write better melodies, chord progressions, lyrics, and more. The bundle packages contain hundreds of chord progressions you can use as is, or modify as you see fit.