How to improvise on piano

When improvising on the piano, you don’t follow notes as in sheet music. Instead you follow your own ideas. You can use your knowledge about scales and chords, but freely, without a given plan or directions. In this guide you will get some easy tips about piano improvisation.

Play only on the white keys

This may be the easiest way to start improvising on the piano: only play on the white keys is rather effortless and it can sound great too. The white keys all belong to the C Major Scale, alternately the A Minor Scale (they are relative keys), and therefore you can use all the white keys without any dissonance.

Major: If you start from a C key with both your hands you will play in Major (try also to end with C and emphasize this note) … It is more fun with some backing music:

C Major Soft Ballad

Show scale C major scale diagram

A tip: if you can't recognize the chords, be restrictive with – or use primarily as passing tones – the 4th and 7th notes (F and B) in the scale since they will create dissonance against E and C notes.

Minor: … and if you start on an A key it will sound Minor. Try to end the improvisation with A and during the improvisation emphasize this tone. Once again, it can often sound better over some music:

A Minor Pop Ballad

Show scale A minor scale diagram

A tip: if you can't recognize the chords, be restrictive with – or use primarily as passing tones – the 2nd and 5th notes (B and F) in the scale since they will create dissonance against E and C notes.

Dorian: A third way only using the white keys is to start on a D key. Now, you will play in the Dorian Mode and if you combine this with the chord progression Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7 you could make it sound as a jazz improvisation. Try to play with some music:

D Dorian Jazz

Show scale D dorian scale diagram

Pentatonic: Let us also mention a fourth way. By playing all the white keys except F and B (which makes it the C Pentatonic Major Scale), you could bring the sound of a pop song to the piano. Try to play chords such as C, Em, F, G and Am with your left hand and then create melodies from the white keys C, D, E, G, A with your right hand. As a suggestion, you could mostly combine C, D, E (tones) with C, F, G (chords) and G, A (tones) with Em, Am (chords).

Minor Pentatonic can be used instead of a Natural Minor over a song in minor.

Blues improvising

The style of blues is to a high degree made upon improvising and there are some easy ways to start. Among the first things is to get familiar with the 12-bar blues. After you have studied the fundamentals of 12-bar blues you could also bring some licks into your repertoire and one way is to create your own licks from the blues scales.

It can be tricky to handle it all by yourself, instead you can let some musicians do some of the job and when focus only on jamming along with some scale:

E Minor Slow Blues

E Minor Pentatonic Blues scale diagram

Jamming to backing tracks is a perfect way to start play blues improvisation on piano.

Jazz improvising

In the "D Dorian jazz", example above one scale was used for a whole tune. But normally, this is not the cases in jazz. Jazz tunes tend to cover more than one key and jazz soloing often involve many scales. The typical procedure is to change scale when the chord changes. This can be very challenging and sometimes arpeggios are used instead for scales to reduce the amount of tones.

Solo over chords

A very common concept in the area of improvising is to play a solo over chords. The most obvious way to do this is to combine a scale with chords in the same key, for example, playing the C Major Scale over chords belonging to the same scale.

As mentioned above, when using the Major or Natural Minor Scale it is a good idea to be restrictive with notes that can create dissonance.

In Major scales, this is especially the case with the 4th and 7th scale notes. These will clash against several chords: I (both clash), iii (the 4th clash), IV (the 7th clash), vi (both clash).

This may be very abstract for you. In the key of C, for instance, the F and B notes will either or both clash with C major, E minor, F major and A minor chords.

Also, the 1st and 3rd scales notes will consequently clash on occasion. These will clash against the ii (the 3rd clash) and V (the 1st clash) chords.

Once again, to make it less abstract. In the key of C, for instance, the C or E notes will clash with D minor and G major chords.

Obviously, you can't avoid four of the notes from a seven-note scale when improvising. The solution is to develop you ear. Exercise your improvisation and you will get better by time.

A tip: try to anticipate the sound of notes you are about to play. And also, focus on which function the notes has in the scale, for example, you should make a difference between the root note and the rest of the notes.

Which scales to use

There are large collections of scales that can be utilize in improvisation situations. The hard part is to know which scale to use. In some cases, one scale can be used exclusively, in other cases several scales are used for a tune. However, being able to include more than one scale when soloing is an important step to develop as a soloist.

To present a concrete example. If the chord progression Am - F - G - E is played, the Am Natural Minor would be a typical scale choice to play over the first three chords and when change to Am Harmonic Minor to play over the last chord. In the member section, backing tracks with real-time instructions regarding which scales to play over parts of songs are available.

The seven modes and variants of these are some of the most useful scales when it comes to find suitable flavors for matching music styles. Dorian, which already been mentioned, and Locrian are two options for jazz, the latter is especially used over diminished and half-diminished chords. The Phrygian mode is useful for dark melodic heavy metal and as well as Spanish music, for the latter Phrygian Dominant may be preferred. For soloing over rock and heavier rock is the Aeolian mode a viable choice, often in conjunction with the Minor Pentatonic. The Lydian mode can be used as an alternative for the Major Scale and the Mixolydian can be combined with the Pentatonic scales in blues soloing.

Superimpose scales

After a while you may be searching for new ways to express yourself and in that case the next step could be to superimpose scales. This is done by using scales over chords that don't clearly fits together. One approach is to move a pentatonic scale a whole step, for example from C to D. Try to play the G Pentatonic Scale over the chords F, C and Dm. You will notice that it sounds a little different, but pretty good.