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Music Improvising HOW TO

About this Website

Ornamentation was often improvised over 
a tonal skeleton in Baroque ensemble music.

Regular improvising of music can develop facility in musical performance and composition. This website discusses approaches to music improvising, and underlying theoretical concepts. The information is adaptable to different ability levels, instruments, and styles.

New echapters will be posted as they are developed. Your comments, requests, or suggestions to Renee_Leech will be welcomed.


Improvising may be done at any level of musical involvement. At its best, it explores musical forms and concepts in an intentional way. But improvising can start in a very random way and be highly beneficial to the improviser and of much interest to the listener. Hundreds and hundreds of improvisations, whether planned or unplanned, can build a random vocabulary of sound and technique that can spur a performer or composer to develop uniqueness and depth of knowledge.

Rhythm. Music originates with a rhythmic structure. There can be absence or presence of a regular beat, and of a phrase structure. The selection of the rhythmic structure normally is based on the purpose of the music. The music may accompany dance (where sound may set a beat or simply fill in contrasting material). It may tell a story (where sound color may set mood, or be structured around words, action, or poetry). Or, it may simply reflect the meanderings of the improvisor's thoughts.

Tonality. Once the rhythmic components are selected, one may apply instrumental color (select your instrument or voice), and consider tonality. Tonal structure may be random, but is most coherent when a tone row is selected from which sounds may be taken. Generally, tone rows incorporate far less than the twelve tones of the chromatic scale (see the black and white keys between octaves on the piano keyboard). A tone row is often five to seven tones, and incorporates both half and whole steps. Once the tones are selected, the scale has tendencies created by the relative position of the whole and half steps and the tonal center or "home" position of the tone row. Exploiting these tendencies creates musical tension and resolution. Exploring this tension inherent in the tone row is the challenge for the improvisor.

Harmony. After a tone row is selected, harmonic structure may be applied. Harmony is usually derived from the tone row, although it may also be contrasted with the tone row (as in bitonality or polytonality). The derivation of harmony from a tone row is the basis on which ensemble improvising can develop. Once players agree on the tonality-derived harmony, especially where harmonic elements underscore rhythmic structure, the ensemble sound will be coherent.

Form. In planned improvising, form would be applied to these processes. Forms are sometimes referred to by alphabet letters, which may represent phrases, or larger sections of a piece. Where A is a pattern or section, A1 a variation on a pattern, and B is contrasting material, form AABA (or A-A1-B-A) may represent a four-phrase piece, or a longer, four-section piece.

Dynamics. Lastly, in all of these processes, the manner of attacking the sound can be varied greatly. Any sound can be short, long, liquid, brisk, loud, or soft. Such dynamic range is explored extensively in film soundtracks to build and release tension. In performance of compositions, repeated patterns or sections are often performed with dynamic variations. Within a piece, individual phrases are generally shaped dynamically, often starting and ending softly and swelling in the middle.

Dominique Hazael-Massieuxweb design/csslayout-howto.html.en,v 1.3 2004
copyright, 2005
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