Mastering Scales and Harmonies on the Piano

By Emma, published on 14/07/2017 Blog > Music > Piano > Top Tips for Piano Improv

Improvisation exerts a seductive power over all musicians. To be able to free yourself from the “shackles” of sheet music to give free rein to creativity. To be able to express personal emotions through the piano.

Who hasn’t dreamed of it? Getting started on the piano is also a form of improvising!

The biggest question, in terms of piano improvisation, is “how.” How do you learn to improvise on the piano?

Learning to play the piano and learning to improvise require training!


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Improvisation on the Piano is at the Heart of Music

Improvisation is more important than composition on a “logical” and “historical” level.

All composers of piano pieces, and of music in general, are, more than anything else, improvisers. The development of jazz music over more than a century demonstrates that the essence of music is a result of improvisational games.

But improvisation is also important in so-called “classical” music. Bear in mind that the system of musical notation was created relatively recently.

It’s dates to the end of the Middles Ages.

When musical notation hadn’t yet been developed and refined like it is now, improvisation was a crucial necessity in the process of creating and playing music.

Piano improvisation skills improvement Playing and composing means improvising.

But improvisation is still with us, even after the standardization of the classical music notation system. Bach was an improviser before becoming a well-known composer.

In certain compositions of that era, great liberties were taken with interpretation, through the techniques of basso continuo and interval annotation, and later chords. If you want to understand improvisation on the piano, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with these crucial sources of music.

The Proper State of Mind for Learning How to Improvise on the Piano

Improvisation is the result of one technique, of an intimate familiarity with music and its language. We’ll return to this subject in just a moment as we go over the basics of musical harmony. It’s impossible to improvise without knowing the basics of harmony.

But, before that, you should be aware that improvisation is first a state of mind. To be able to improvise, in order to quickly learn how to play the piano, you must first address this point, “forging” in yourself a state of mind that’s conducive to improvisation.

Improvisation implies a certain trust in yourself. Improvising is leaving the beaten path, the piano lessons, turning your eyes from the sheet music, and expressing personal emotions and feelings that are often more intimate than those displayed during beginner piano lessons.

Improvisation on piano Dare to improvise!

Daring to improvise is the first step for anyone hoping to learn how to improvise on the piano. Not being afraid of ridicule or looks from others, especially at first, having fun, following your instincts, relaxing, getting outside yourself—letting go, in brief. You’ll amaze your piano teacher.

Listening to Music

To improvise, you must have a developed musical sensibility.

That’s always the case. If you’re hoping to learn improvisation on the piano, it’s because you already love music, because you’re passionate about it. But it’s important to remember: the more you listen to music, the more you’ll progress in terms of improvisation. Because improvisation is more than spontaneity.

Inspiration doesn’t come only from within, from feelings, from internal emotions, it’s the product of what you’ve heard.

Music by other artists will be the main source, the primary material of inspiration and improvisation.

Improvising is largely about recall, consciously or unconsciously, of patterns, of musical sentences, or of jingles you’ve already heard.

Know the Basics of Musical Harmony

Contrary to what you might think, you don’t improvise at random. Improvisation is a balance between freedom and constraints.

You could say the same thing for all forms of creation. You don’t create something from nothing. To paint an original piece of artwork, it’s not enough to be inspired or to be able to run wild with your imagination. If you don’t know how to paint, you’ll never realize your big dream (you can try it yourself).

An original painter is before anything else a painter who knows how to paint, a so-called master of painting techniques. On the piano, it’s the same thing.

If you’ve never practiced the piano or if you don’t have the minimal understanding of the basics of harmony, the result of your improvisation runs the risk of being very boring. It’s not a matter of taking a complete course on piano and musical harmony, but simply knowing the basics will help you improvise. You could even ask for help from your piano teacher!

If you’re getting started with improvisation on the piano, your goal during your first attempts will be to improvise by playing a melody with your right hand and the chords with your left.

The right hand/melody and left hand/chord division is among the strictest in music. The more you progress, the more you’ll be able to free yourself from this rigid division of roles.

We’re going to address the following two points:

  • How to do you invent a melody (with your right hand)?
  • How do you generate the chords that “go well” with the melody (with your left hand)?

Creating a Melody on the Piano: Basic Principles

There’s no magic recipe for creating a melody on the piano. The melody is the freest element in music, the one least bounded by constraints. You’ll soon see that the constraints are more important when dealing with chords (with the left hand).

Inspiration is first when it comes to creating melodies. as we discussed earlier, melodies have two sources:

piano improvisation melodies Your left and right hand working together.

  • Your inner being, your mood, your emotions, your feelings at the moment. The melody, more than any other musical element, is an expression of the artist’s soul.
  • Melodies invented by composers that you listen to. Invention never comes from nowhere. It’s a product of a musical sensibility that an attentive listener develops and that recurs in your music (not only in piano pieces, of course).

To create melodies on the piano, the only “prerequisite,” the only thing you need to know are the scales.

To improvise a melody, you need to understand the structure of the scales in which you’re improvising and know how to play the piano. A scale is a series of consecutive seventh notes, separated by half-tones (E-F for example) or full tones (C-D for example). If you’re in C major, the scale will be: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-(C). If you’re in E major, the scale will be: E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-(E).

In total there are twelve major scales and twelve minor scales. A melody uses the notes of scale to organize itself. If you improvise a melody in C major, you can use the notes of the C major scale: all of the so-called half-notes, but none of the quarter notes. To begin with, you can work on improvising only with a C  major scale.

The rules is as follows: a melody is always affixed to a given scale, a collection of seven notes. Of course, in C major, it’s possible to use notes outside the scale of C major, but to start out it’s better not to use notes other than those in the scale. Some advice: a melody, in general, doesn’t make enormous deviations. If you play: C-G-B-F-B, the resulting melody isn’t very “pretty,” it lacks coherence, sounds “disjointed.”

In a melody, a repeated note doesn’t need to be separated by more than three or four intermediary notes. Of course, again, this is a rule that can be useful as you start out, but you can deviate from it afterwards. In order to be able to free yourself from the musical constraints, you first need to understand them and bend them.

You can also learn how to tune your piano…

Chords with Your Left Hand: the Fundamentals

How do you accompany a melody (hypothetically played by the right hand) with the left hand? By using the chords of course. Chords allow you to enhance the melody that, by itself, is a little lacking. But which chords should you choose? Or more precisely:

  • How do you make the chord you play with your left hand “go well” with the melody from your right hand?
  • How do you make the chords themselves agree with each other (in this situation)?

Musical harmony is the answer to these questions. Musical harmony organizes the science of the chords and their sequencing. Musical harmony is fairly new. In the Middle Ages, musicians had a predominantly melodic understanding of music. Their music had either a singular voice (Gregorian chanting), or multiple voices, but always melodic. The “science” that studied the coexistence of melodic lines in any given song was called the counterpoint.

Counterpoints answered the question: how do you make sure the different melodic voices in a song go well together? There was no discussion of harmony. Then music evolved (during the Renaissance): the highest voice (the soprano) became independent of the others and the only melodic voice. And that’s how musical harmony was born.

Due to limited space in this article, we’ll stick to the basic ideas related to harmony. In a scale, you have seven different notes, also called “degrees.” If you take the C major scale, you have C-D-E-F-G-A-B-(C). Using each of these notes, you can construct a chord. A chord is a combination of two intervals: a third and a fifth. The C chord, for example, is: C-E-G. The C-D interval is the third interval and the C-G interval is the fifth interval. The G chord is: G-B-D.

In any given scale, there are seven different chords, but all the chords don’t carry the same importance. The most important chords are those made on the first, fourth, and fifth degree. So, in the C major scale:

  • The C major chord of the first degree: C-E-G (called the “tonal” chord).
  • The G major chord of the fifth degree: G-B-D (called the “dominant” chord).
  • The F major chord of the fourth degree: F-A-C (called the “subdominant” chord).

You can get started, as you introduce yourself to improvisation, by using only these three fundamental chords. Alternate between these three chords with your left hand while you play an improvised melody with your right hand. Try to find the combinations that make the most sense between them. You’ll see that by using these three chords, your improvisation will never sound “wrong.”

Then, once you’ve familiarized yourself with improvisation on the piano, you can:

  • Use the other chords, being aware that: the second chord (D-F-A) is very close to the fourth chord (two shared notes). It offers a variety on the fourth chord. The seventh chord (B-D-F) is a weaker chord that’s very close to the fifth chord. The sixth chord shares two notes with the fourth and first chords. So it can be used to replace these chords. Very important: the third chord (in C major: E-G-B) is very rarely used in this way. So it’s better to avoid it.
  • You can incorporate improvisation into your program for learning how to play the piano.
  • Use the chords in reverse order. For example, play E-G-C in place of C-G-E.
  • Use scales besides the C major.
  • Switch as you play, within the same improvisation, from one scale to another. Switching has its own rules, but unfortunately we don’t have time to address them.

In conclusion, improvisation is one of the better ways to learn how to play the guitar.

And remember: you’re never too old to start playing the piano!


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