Muziek improviseren, hoe doe je dat?

Making music doesn’t have to be limited to playing off a piece of paper or committing a library of songs to memory. Ask any jazz musician – in their line of work, almost every melody is conceived on the spot. Genius? You bet, but that’s not to say that less experienced musicians can’t or shouldn’t improvise, so read on and learn how it’s done.

First Off

  • This article is aimed at beginners as well as advanced musicians who’ve never improvised before. Even if you picked up your first instrument last week, you can start improvising today.
  • I’m using terms borrowed from music theory at times throughout the article. If you bump into terms you don’t yet understand, feel free to ignore them and skip to parts that you do understand. After all, getting started is what’s most important. If you want to learn more, check out our articles on music theory.
  • There are a number of good reasons why you’d want to improvise, including:
    • To have fun
    • To thrill your audience like a seasoned jazz band?
    • To make a song feel fresh
    • To find inspiration for new music

Restrict Yourself and Get More Creative

When it comes to improvising, creativity is key. To get creative and discover new things, you – believe it or not – will actually need a number of rules and restrictions, no matter if you’re a writer, an artist or a musician. In other words, don’t demonstrate your skills and virtuoso melodies right off the bat. Start by picking a key and a scale, and don’t hesitate to challenge yourself by going for a key you’re not the most comfortable with. Next, pick three or four notes based on the scale you’re going with and get creative. If you’re a drummer, you could limit yourself to playing just one or two drums here. Also, don’t be afraid to repeat the same note or play the same note in a different octave – there are basically infinite ways to change things up. Regularly switch up the melody while you play and you’re essentially already improvising. See? It’s not hard at all! To give yourself and any listeners something to hold on to, it’s always a good idea to include recurring parts, maybe even in combination with chords. In any case, start off by trusting your ears to determine which notes go well with what chords and which don’t. If you’re playing on a keyboard, you can accompany yourself with chords. Just start with a single chord and slowly but surely progress to simple progressions. You can also always turn to Google to find popular chord progressions, or look up (one-chord) backing tracks on YouTube to improvise over. Lastly, don’t forget to count! Regardless of how important freedom is when it comes to improv, you have to stick to a time signature, whether it’s common time or something more intricate. Keeping time is crucial when you’re frequently alternating chords.

The video below shows how piano prodigy Alma Deutscher improvises a sonata based on four randomly-picked notes. While she’s clearly extremely talented, you can still see and hear how she applies the basic principles of improvisation. She first considers the key and the notes, and then plays a simple melody before letting loose. Impressive stuff!

Colour Outside the Lines Sometimes

To take things to the next level, you’re going to have to step out of that comfort zone where you keep time and play notes in a logical order. Creating dissonance is a fairly easy way to make your music more interesting. Dissonant notes are notes that don’t go well together harmonically. When playing a chord-based instrument, you can stack two different chords or notes that sit directly next to each other. The trick is then to resolve this dissonance by shifting one or more notes so everything harmonically falls into place again. If your instrument of choice is melody-based, try playing a backing track and play a dissonant note on top before resolving it by playing a consonant note. Changing up the rhythm is another simple way to put a spin on a basic melody, and not just through quavers and crotchets, but also using triplets. Last but not least, you’ll want to consider the dynamics, so the contrast between loud and quiet. Here, your improvisation can be subtle, abrupt or somewhere in between.

Go With Your Gut

Ever tried improvising music based on your mood? If you’re happy and you know it, go for an upbeat melody in major. This’ll make it easier to come up with something that sounds good. That said, being in a bad mood can just as easily spark a brilliant improv session. Just start out slow-and-simple and work in some gloomy chords. Music is all about expressing feelings, so taking your mood as a starting point not only makes improvising easier, but more personal.

Muziek improviseren, hoe doe je dat?

Use Images and Text

Non-musical things like the pictures and the written word can be a great source of inspiration. Movies illustrate how well sound and images go together and, since Hans Zimmer doesn’t have a monopoly on writing film score, I would encourage you to try it yourself. Stick on your favourite movie, scene or series, mute the sound and then try to come up with a melody based on what you see. This also works for poems, heartfelt speeches, photos, lyrics and more.

Plain and Sample

Another tip to help you improvise would be to use existing melodies or samples. Put on a song that you like and take the melody or part of it and move notes around to come up with something new. What can also yield great results is imitating artists or styles. You could, for example, play a nursery rhyme in the style of your favourite band or artist and go from there. And remember, it’s not about pulling off a great imitation here. It’s about discovering new things and going beyond the same rhythms, melodies, chords and sounds.

Repeat and Record

As said before, you want to frequently repeat any well-improvised bits and tweak them as you go. This way, you can create a coherent whole while you continue to improve yourself. Finally, it’s essential that you record yourself. At the end of the day, it’d be a shame if you couldn’t remember how you played that one improvised nugget of gold, right?

Muziek improviseren, hoe doe je dat?

The Step-By-Step Guide

  1. Restrict yourself. By sticking to a small number of notes or perhaps chords, you’re forcing yourself to get more creative.
  2. Pick a key and scale as your starting point but don’t hesitate to switch things up. Shifting to a different key can easily spark inspiration.
  3. Don’t forget to count. As important as freedom is when you improvise, you have to stick to a certain time signature. Timing is crucial when you’re alternating chords.
  4. Experiment with consonance and dissonance, rhythm and dynamics.
  5. Let your feelings lead you. Use the mood you’re in to form or transform melodies.
  6. Use images and text for inspiration. Take a good look at a scene, a painting, lyrics or a picture of your ex and try to come up with fitting music.
  7. Repeat and polish the nice parts. Recurring bits help create a coherent whole and help you improve your improv skills.
  8. Record yourself. This way, you’ll never forget how to play any brilliantly improvised parts.

See Also

» Top 10 most played along songs
» Better, Faster, Stronger: Learn to Read Music at Speed
» Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference
» How to Write the Perfect, Personal Wedding Song

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