5 Simple Tools For Piano Improvisation
So you’re learning to play piano, and you’re ready to express yourself more creatively. Piano improvisation is a great way to break out of the mold with your playing. Plus, it’s pretty simple once you learn how!
First, you should understand that improv comes after you already have some basic piano skills. You need to know the notes on your keyboard, and how to play basic chords. (If you’re not quite ready, you can sign up for my free 5-day workbook.)
What is Piano Improvisation?
Still with me? Okay, let’s get into what piano improvisation is.
A lot of people are intimidated by the thought of improvising. That’s because they think it means making up things to play off the top of their heads. Piano improvisation introduces creativity, but it’s a not a random process. There are guidelines that can help you improvise successfully – and in a way that sounds natural when you play.
Imagine that you’re driving down a big racetrack with multiple lanes. You have the freedom to move left or right, to slow down or speed up. But that’s all within the confines of the guardrails along the edges of the track.
That’s what it’s like with piano improvisation too. In this case, the guardrails are the framework that allow you play and improvise with ease.
To get started, we are going to use some 4-chord tunes all using the chords C, G, Am, and F. The chords themselves will be our main guardrails as we practice piano improvisation.
Introducing the Piano Improvisation Tools
As we play our chords, we’re going to learn to apply 5 different improv techniques, or “tools” to add in. Ultimately, the goal is switch easily between these tools and use them to add a nice variety to your sound.
Piano Improvisation Tool #1: Basic Chord Patterns
The first way you can switch things up with improv is by alternating when you play different notes.
For example, play a Cmajor chord with your right hand and two C notes with your left. If you look, you’ll see that you’re playing a total of 5 keys. Those 5 notes don’t have to be played all at the same time. Go ahead, try changing the pattern that you’re playing. Let your hands and fingers take turns rather than hitting the notes at the same time.
If you watched me in the video, you’d see that I didn’t play the same pattern throughout. That’s what I want you to do, too – varying things while still staying “within the rails”. You can start by playing the same pattern several lines in a row before moving on to a different pattern. A lot of people like to change the patterns they play according to what part of the song they are in.
Piano Improvisation Tool #2: Adding Additional Notes
Here’s another improv tool – adding additional notes to basic chords as we play. It’s really as simple as choosing from the notes in the given chord and playing them in other locations on the keyboard.
Try playing two C notes on your left hand and a Cmajor chord with your right hand again. Do you see the C, E, and G notes that you’re playing in the chord? That means that you can play any other C, E, and G notes and it will sound great along with what you’re already playing.
In my example, I play the basic chord and then start adding in some extra E and G notes to build a more dynamic sound. You really can’t go wrong with this technique as long as you are playing notes that match those in the main chord!
Piano Improvisation Tool #3: Multiple Octaves
Most of the time you’ll start playing at the center of your keyboard, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay there. Shifting to different positions is a great way to add variety and enhance different emotions in a song. Just make sure you are playing the same exact notes in your new location on the keyboard! That means you’ll move to the left or right 8 or 16 white notes at a time.
You can change octaves anytime in a song, but many people will choose to do it at the start of a chorus, new verse, or bridge. Switching octaves is also great for imparting emotional resonance to a particular lyric.
Another way to use multiple octaves is to play the same chord in more than one octave before moving on. So if you know you are playing one chord 4 times before playing the next, you could move up or down and octave for one or more of those times to add to the range of sound you are creating.
Piano Improvisation Tool #4: Inversions
Inversions are a great tool to help you build out your proficiency with chords you already know how to play. But they have a bad reputation because some people seem to think they’re very complicated. I’m here to tell you that you can play inversions, and enjoy it too!
Let’s use the Gmajor and Cmajor chords as an example. They both are made up of G, C, and E notes, just in different orders. Guess what that means – you can use both as inversions of each other in different positions on the keyboard.
Why would you want to play inversions? Well, there are two main reasons. Sometimes it’s simply easier to make a transition to an inversion of a particular chord than the main position. Depending on what mix of chords are in a song and what order they are played in, inversions can help you avoid jumping around on your keyboard too much.
The other reason I love inversions is the way they add a different tone that still works with the way the song should sound. You get some great options for adding depth to what you’re playing, without too much extra effort.
I have a whole video on this topic alone, so check it out here and learn more about how to use inversions. I promise it’s not as hard as you might think!
Piano Improvisation Tool #5: Arpeggios
You may have heard this piano improvisation tool already. Simply put, arpeggios are a method of playing chords where each individual note (including any extras you add in) is played one by one, from side to side. You can use your left hand to maintain the overall rhythm while adding in those right-hand notes in faster succession.
Arpeggios are a technique used in Adele’s “Someone Like You” and lots of other popular songs. The nice thing about this particular piano improvisation tool is that it sounds more intricate than it is. You’re not changing the notes you’re playing or your position on the keyboard – just the speed at which you cycle through individual notes. Arpeggios are great for giving some nuance to your chords as you play.
Are You Ready to Try Piano Improvisation?
So that’s it – all the basics you’ll need to get started with piano improvisation! As long as you’re pretty familiar with your notes and chords, you can go ahead and start using the 5 tools I’ve shown you.
Take some time to practice each individual tool. Once you’re feeling more confident, try transitioning between the different tools and mixing them together. Don’t copy my exact sound – find what you like and enjoy the interesting tweaks you can make to your playing.
I think you’re going to enjoy how many new sounds and infinite combinations you’ll be able to play as you learn to improvise! I’d love to hear how it goes, so feel free to drop me a line or send me a video of you playing! 🙂