Source: Pixabay

Source: Pixabay


3 Important Factors for Effective Improvising

Improvising is a wonderful opportunity for piano students to learn more about what makes music effective . . . or not so effective. Here are three important principles that pianists should consider in order to improve the quality of their improvisations.


One of the most important aspects of successful improvising is phrasing. A musical phrase is like a sentence or short paragraph in spoken English. Just as we don’t keep talking without brief pauses between sentences and paragraphs (at least most of us don’t!), a good improviser will create musical phrases with space (rests) between them.

The average phrase will typically consist of smaller intervals (unisons, seconds, thirds and fourths) with larger intervals appearing less frequently.

In written English it’s important to vary the length of one’s sentences in order to keep the reader interested. The same is true when improvising music. Varying the lengths of improvised phrases helps keep listeners’ attention.

Another aspect of phrasing is contour. The contour of a phrase may rise, or fall, or rise then fall, or any of a number of combinations.

Both the length and contour of phrases can help to create or release musical tension (see below).

The following G-flat pentatonic scale (black keys only) improvisation for RH employs phrases of various lengths and different contours. Each phrase consists of intervals of a third or less.

Unity vs. Contrast

Another important factor for successful improvising is striking a balance between musical unity and musical contrast.

Unity is important because it provides consistency, which the human brain usually prefers. Without consistency, an improvisation may sound like a jumble of disconnected notes.

Contrast keeps listeners awake and interested. Without contrast, music can become monotonous or even boring.

Unity is created through repetition. An improviser might repeat notes, a phrase, a motif, a rhythm, or a harmonic progression, etc.

Contrast is created through change. An improviser might change the length or contour of phrases, change the rhythms used for different phrases, change the range (playing higher or lower), change the dynamics, change the tempo, etc.

An easy way for beginning improvisers to make sure they’re providing both unity and contrast is to improvise with an ostinato or simple harmonic progression in the LH (which establishes unity) while playing a varied improvised line in the RH (which creates contrast).

Tension & Release

A third important factor in effective improvising is building and releasing tension. Just like a good film creates and releases dramatic tension, a good improvisation creates and releases musical tension.

A few ways to increase musical tension include:

  • Playing higher and higher
  • Playing louder
  • Playing longer and/or more complex phrases
  • Playing faster

Some ways to release musical tension include:

  • Playing lower and lower
  • Playing softer
  • Playing shorter and/or less complex phrases
  • Including more space (silence) between phrases

Pianists who pay conscious attention to phrasing, unity/contrast and tension/release will create more interesting and effective improvisations and are bound to increase their overall confidence as improvisers.

Doug Hanvey teaches improvising to aspiring creative pianists in Portland, Oregon. His Piano Lab Blog features fresh ideas, tips and inspiration for piano teachers and students.

Thanks so much, Doug!