14 Mai 2015

Improvising in Music

A overview of some techniques for improvising in music

Improvising in Music

Improvising in music has a long history.  For example, in the Baroque, it was standard practice to improvise a repeated section.  The important point to keep in mind when improvising on a written piece of music is to maintain the basic integrity of the written music.  Improvising music is to make the music your own.  That is, to express your thoughts and feelings about the musical subject through your interpretation.

Here are four basic ways you can improvise on a pre-written piece of music.

1. Cadence fill

2. Melody fill

3. Skeleton fill

4. Free Form improvising on a main gesture/motive


During the course of a song, there will be moments where there are notes held for a long period of time such as a cadence.  There may be chord changes occurring, but the melody stands still.  This is an ideal spot for a fill.

Generally you can add some notes that will accentuate the held note and/or add some notes to fill in the space between the held note and the next note in the melody.  Be careful that the necessary emphasis on the original note is not lost.

Sometimes there is only one chord at the cadence.  So, another way to fill in that same spot is to use chord changes that will depart from that written chord and progress to the next written chord in the song following the cadence.  This can be done in conjunction with adding melody fill notes if you like.


Melody fill is similar to cadence fill except the fill comes during the course of playing the melody.  What you are doing is dressing up the melody. 

For example; Say you have a melody that has three quarter notes ascending, A C F.  You could play a dotted 8th/16th A B, then dress up the C with a fast turn landing on C (dcbd) and finish with an early (syncopated) landing on the F.

How you dress up the space between the notes will depend on the type of song you are playing, the speed and (the best part) your personal choices.  The integrity of the melody is always kept intact.


This is more of a free style of improvising.  The melody of a song can be de-constructed to a skeleton form.  That is, certain notes are critical for the song and the rest of the notes can be stripped away.  This leaves room for you to improvise your own fill notes.  This is most effective on a repeated section.  The audience hears the original and then your improvisation on that section.

It is important to completely understand the composition of the song.  There are important gestures and motives that must be taken into account as part of the skeleton of the music in order for your audience to be able to relate to the original.  This is an important point – Your audience must be able to relate to the original.


Every song has important gestures and motives on which the song is based.  The most famous is probably the opening gesture to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  He built an entire movement based on those famous four notes.

In this technique, you determine the important gesture or motive on which the song is built.  You then use that gesture or motive to improvise an entirely new section to the song.

First play through a portion of the music and pick a spot – always at a cadence – where you create a musical segue to a free improvisation on the main gesture/motive.  This entirely new section shouldn’t be excessively long as to lose the cohesiveness of the original song.  Then use a new segue to return to the original departure point in the music and continue with the original song.  In order to make this work properly, the gesture/motive you pick from the original song has to have a strong connection to the original so that your audience can relate the new section and the original song. 

In all these techniques, you can apply compositional tools such as diminution, augmentation, repetition, etc.  Finally, one important point to stress in all these techniques is to keep the original integrity of the music intact.  The degree of improvisation used will depend on the style of the original music.  The amount of improvisation you incorporate into the music should be determined in a thoughtful manner.  Too much improvisation will destroy the song. Incorporating the right amount of improvisation will be an artistically satisfying experience for you as the performer.  The audience will enjoy hearing a familiar song, done a little differently, and they will gain some insight into who you are as a performing artist.




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