Piano Improvisation: How Anyone Can Start Improvising Today

When neuroscientist Charles Limb asked freestyle rappers to spontaneously generate rhymes to the accompaniment of a rhythmic beat while they were lying in an uncomfortable, huge functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) Scanner, he was looking for measurable brain activities that hopefully could explain something like the neurological basis of creativity.

Music and Creativity in the fMRI Scanner: Astonishing Findings

The findings he got were astonishing but they were comparable with the results of other similar experiments, where Jazz pianists had to improvise on a special keyboard inside an fMRI machine of a similar type. In all cases, the creative process of spontaneously generating rhymes, melodies, and rhythms had been accompanied by highly activated brain regions, one of them responsible for self expression. Perhaps even more astonishing was the fact that other brain areas were deactivated:

  • Self-monitoring and self-supervising tasks, as well as

  • attentional shifts to external, task-irrelevant stimuli

seemed to be inhibited while the subjects were immersed in the task of musical improvisation. This means that the activity of improvisation is accompanied by a mental state of high, meditative concentration, where internal and external supervising processes are partly muted, permitting musical self expression.

The Benefits of Piano Improvisation: The Brain Rewires Itself

Who doesn’t know this feeling: “How wonderful would it be to simply sit at a piano and play melodies that leap into my mind – without any notes?” But piano improvisation, this art of spontaneously playing melodies on the spur of the moment, unfortunately is often seen as a domain for few very creative, experienced, and gifted musicians and thus unreachable for hobbist musicians or beginners. So many people don’t learn piano improvisation, even though they truly want to.

But scientific investigation shows, that – independent of the age of the player – the brain begins to rewire itself after only a few weeks of piano improvisation practice. And apart from this, there is a growing number of studies showing music making has a positive effect on the brain’s activities as it ages.

With a daily practice of free and creative piano playing, you could:

  • create moments of relaxation, joy, and satisfaction,

  • forget the stress of your work, and maybe even be more creative in your job, and

  • train your creativity and start freely playing music with your friends.

The Improvisation Toolbox: Six Basic and Useful Rules

Let’s face it. While sitting in front of the piano with the intention to improvise, the big questions will be:

  • How can I invent a melody?

  • And how can I begin to PLAY?

  • And, if I have an idea, how can I play this idea the MOMENT I have it?

Here are six basic rules for the beginner as well as for any advanced musician. You will use them in any improvisation, regardless of whether you want to play in the style of Jazz, Pop, Classical, Romantic, New Age, or whatever you prefer:

  1. Take a motive of any song and play this motive in its original version.

  2. Repeat the motive with different expressions.

  3. Repeat the motive in different tone pitches, thus producing a sequence of the motive.

  4. Play the motive in different tempos, thus changing the motive rhythmically.

  5. Play the motive with different intervals, thus changing the shape of the motive.

  6. End your piece of music repeating the motive in its original version with a clear ending tone.

As I mentioned, these are the fundamental principles of improvisation. They are something like a toolbox for improvisation. To make them even clearer I will show how these principles can be applied, taking a fragment of George Gershwin’s well known “Summertime” as my motive, in the following 6 minute video:

For a more in-depth understanding of this subject, take a look at the on-demand, online video course “Piano Improvisation from Day One – Discover your Musicality”. You may check it out with free preview and take an extra 20% discount with the coupon code: “udemy-blog-reader-discount” (limited number).

PeterJanzenAbout the Author

Dr. Peter Janzen (www.peter-janzen.com) studied Physics and Music. After years of working as a university scientist, he changed his area of activities and became a Physics and Music teacher in Germany and Spain. He worked for eight years as the principal of a big International School in Mexico and then went to Egypt as the School Coordinator for the German Schools in the Middle East. Now, Dr. Janzen is a Senior Consultant in areas of culture and education and he has begun to produce didactical videos about his areas of expertise.