Piano is probably the most versatile of instruments in the variety of arrangements, styles and complexity of music it can produce – making it both one of the most powerful and most intimidating instruments for learning to improvise. When you sit down at a piano to improvise, not only do you need to make the big decisions like what musical style you’ll play in and what emotions you want to convey, but you then also need to decide beat-by-beat what each of your ten fingers (not to mention those feet on the pedals) will do.
So in this article I wanted to present some ideas for getting started with piano improvisation which can help you break past that overwhelm and begin to explore improvisation in a fun, musical way that lets your inner musician out. With those principles under your belt, let’s look at some piano specifics for learning to improvise. Instead, I recommend beginning one hand at a time, even if you are quite technically proficient on piano. Use the idea of improvisational rules to make things so simple that your inner musical instinct can’t help but start to emerge.
Use a backing track or play with a friend, so that even if you are playing just simple melodies, you can still feel like you are making interesting music. Once you start getting comfortable with improvising melodies in each hand, you can move on to harmonies. To some extent this is part of the traditional piano syllabus: you learn your scales and the corresponding arpeggios.
To explore this approach, simply learn those triads, one key at a time, and start playing around with them. When you feel confident, you can begin to integrate this with what you did in step one, playing simple C Major scale melodies in your right hand over C-F-G-Am chords in your left hand.
Now that you’re starting to think in terms of chords and melodies and approach the keyboard in a different way, your biggest resource to take things to the next stage will be lead sheets. These are simple versions of sheet music which normally provide one example of each section (i.e. Lead sheets are most commonly associated with jazz music where a single spiral-bound book can hold a couple of hundred songs!
A lead sheet challenges you to think of how you want the song to sound – and then make it happen. From the basic skeleton you can learn to create interesting and sophisticated renditions, different every time you play them.
As you practice playing from the same lead sheet again and again you’ll get a feel for how best to use the notes of the key to give your solos character. To get started with this you can look up lead sheets online or buy a book in your favourite style.
As you gain more confidence in improvisation and want to go beyond the basic triad chords and lead sheet approaches, you can explore other frameworks for improvisation.

The Pianobreaks system is elegant because it very quickly teaches you to play great-sounding jazz improvisations using very simple building blocks, all well within the reach of any beginner-to-intermediate level pianist.
I love that Mark focuses on the emotion and instinct of improvisation and teaches you to develop your relationship with the keyboard. If you had to accompany a friend’s serious spoken-word performance at short notice, or play background music at a wedding, could you do it?
This is where you become a truly impressive improviser, able not only to create great-sounding music from scratch on demand, but be able to do so in whatever style or structure is required.
If you play some piano but have felt bound to the sheet music and wished you could improvise, I hope you’ll give these first couple of steps a try.
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Fortunately there are some simple steps you can take to gradually become an expert piano improviser. It requires an independence and coordination of your two hands in a way that no other instrument really does. This is an idea which is familiar to every Grade 1 or Grade 2 piano student but it’s often then forgotten as the student progresses and it may be overlooked when it comes to improvisation.
Instead of trying to make each phrase different and new, let yourself repeat little phrases, licks and riffs, and experiment with changing them just slightly each time. After a few years of lessons, learning to play pieces and sight-read music, I finally spent a couple of weeks simply learning each of the 24 major and minor triad chords, in both hands. But teaching myself to think in terms of triads and the visual patterns they created on the keyboard gave me a whole different way to approach the keys in front of me. Or in the case of pure improvisation, to play more notes without having to choose more notes.
For example: Decide to learn the main triads in the key of C Major, which would be C Major, F Major, G Major and A Minor. But they are also now commonly used and available for pop and rock music, as well as being a standard tool for song-writers and bands to concisely capture the basics of a song. You don’t need to decide the chords, or how to play the melody by ear – but you do need to fill in pretty much everything else! This will work together with your work on improvising arrangements, so that your overall rendition of each song, both playing the traditional melody and your improvisation in the middle, become more and more musically compelling.

Its creator Mark Meronek recently featured in our Jazz Improv Experts Guide and also wrote a great guest post on jazz improvisation for us. You are able to sit down at the keyboard, either with a lead sheet or no music at all, and create great-sounding performances from your own musical imagination, and feel confident doing it. If you’re already improvising I hope some of the other steps presented here give you new ideas to advance your skills.
It means teaching your brain to process two (potentially quite different) streams of music and integrate them in a coherent way. For example, even the rare teacher who helps their students to improvise will often begin by expecting them to maintain a left-hand harmony part while beginning to improvise with their right-hand over the top. Meaning play simple improvised one-note-at-a-time melodies in one hand, and then do the same in the other. This is a shortcut to improvisation that sounds more intentional and proficient, rather than you producing a continually-changing seemingly-random stream of notes. It gives you bigger musical blocks to use in your improvisation, which lets your improvisations get more complex and sophisticated musically, without requiring you to apply massive brainpower to deciding lots of notes very quickly! Spend time just practising transitioning between those chords in different combinations and voicings, playing them as blocks or arpeggios in different ways.
So instead of having full sheet music showing every note you should play, you’re starting from just the bare skeleton of the piece.
Harry teamed up with leading theory site DaveConservatoire.org to offer a series of simple tutorials explaining his approach. I can’t stress enough how quickly those first couple of steps can go if you already have some basic ability on piano, and how rewarding, satisfying and simply fun they are.
Whatever stage you’re at, find a way to let that inner musical instinct come out – and have fun with it! This all just exacerbates the problem I discussed last week in Improvisational Freedom Through Constraints: that beginners to improvisation can easily feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available to them with every note choice they make.
It means that you break beyond simply playing each chord once per bar (or once per beat) and playing through a melody over the top, and instead start bringing real musical style to your improvisations.

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