Learning how to improvise on piano is one of the most sought-after skills. Here are some tips for how to jump-start this skillset!

So, how do you improvise on piano?

Musical improvisation is a very desirable skill to have as either a professional pianist, a casual student, or even just someone playing for fun.

It allows you to put your own spin on written or learned pieces, fit seamlessly into a musical composition without too much planning, and better express yourself - not to mention, it’s a lot of fun! 

The first thing we’ll address in this article is going to be the cornerstone of improvisation - and music in general: music theory. We’ll give a breakdown on why it’s so important, and a handful of ways to start learning it.

Music Theory

Music theory, put simply, is the study of not any singular piece of music or performance, but the fundamental materials from which they are created - studying music theory gives you the “building blocks” of music.

We won’t go too much into the importance of it here, since it’s been fairly thoroughly covered in the piece "8 Benefits of Learning Music Theory”, which will give you a great grasp on why exactly learning music theory is worth your time, and how it can help improve your musical chops.

Expand Your Repertoire 

In addition to broadening your understanding of the fundamentals of music theory, another thing that can help kickstart your improvisation skills is a wide breadth of musical knowledge - specifically a variety of pieces that you have practiced and played.

This sounds a bit like “improvisation skills will come naturally with time”, but you can make a conscious effort to tackle pieces outside of your comfort zone, or learn pieces with interesting melodies that break convention or catch your eye (or in our case, your ear). 

This isn’t necessarily limited to classical pieces, either - there are a lot of dynamic pieces being written today that you can pull inspiration from - there’s no need to limit your scope, and that’s something to encourage when you want to tread off the beaten path.

Coupling muscle memory with practice and a solid grasp of theory gives you a “feel” for what good improvisation sounds like, a skill that a lot of competent pianists aren’t even conscious of having.

Expanding your stockpile of pieces is invaluable - you can pick and choose riffs that you like and use them in improvisation, putting your own spin on them and getting a feel for the tone and tempo that will eventually become second nature.

If you want to streamline the process of expanding your library, you’ll definitely want to check out our article How to Practice Piano Efficiently – Insanely Actionable Tips and Advice to kickstart your efforts. 

piano repetoire

Train Your Hands To Play Independently

Part of improvising is being able to mentally separate melody and chords so you can riff on music without derailing the backbone of a song or piece. 

For most, improvising melody is often easier than chords, particularly if they don’t have a strong foundation in music theory.

Chords aren’t as imposing as they may seem at first, and improvising doesn’t mean you’re stuck in the key of the piece you’re playing  (although that may be a safer place to start!)

Practicing independent hand movement is a great way to keep your chords and melody from derailing during improvisation - if you’re looking for a good way to practice, check out this article for some solid tips on fostering hand independence.

Once you can get a good working technique, improvisation becomes a lot less daunting from a mechanical point of view. 

Learn Some Common Chord Progressions

Although it may seem a bit like cheating, certain chord progressions are used heavily in music for a pretty simple reason - they sound good! 

Chord progressions are simply just a sequence of notes that develop musical themes in a harmonic way, and taking inspiration from popular ones is a good way to recognize what works and what doesn’t. That of course doesn’t mean you can’t experiment - but having a good foundation is a nice place to start.

You can find a lot of guides on YouTube and around the internet, but I am admittedly partial to this one here. Mastering a variety of different chord patterns gives you a repertoire to pull from - and if you’re well-practiced or take to it particularly well, it usually becomes second nature rather quickly. 

You’ll be able to riff on pieces in the same key without too much trouble - what a lot of new pianists tend to overlook is that a good bulk of improvisation simply comes from practice beforehand.  

Study Musical Scales

Studying scales may not be the most exciting part of music, but it is definitely one of the most important. Make sure to set aside at least a little of your practice to the fundamentals! 

If you have a good grasp of scales, it enables you to take a melody past the sheet music without the risk of breaking out of the piece’s key inadvertently, which can sound dissonant.

Once you have a comfortable muscle memory of the scales, you hardly even need to make the conscious effort - practice will make it easier for you to focus on the more exciting aspects of music. 

Shift The Key Around

This method is a bit more advanced, but don’t fret just yet! If you are a pianist with a strong knowledge of scales and key changes, then transposing a piece on-the-fly is well within your wheelhouse! If not, it’s something that you can easily practice.

A tone change is mechanically simple enough, and can even be as straightforward as transposing melody and chords from one octave to another - and it sounds incredibly skillful to a listener or audience. 

Changing up the tempo is a great way to layer complexity on a piece while improvising, and it can be combined with the other techniques discussed in this article to really make a musical riff stand out. 

Slow It Down - Or, Speed It Up!

This trick is much easier if you’re playing alone or on a solo gig.

Slowing down a piece on the fly can add a ponderous, emotional weight to the performance, even if you don’t make any other compositional changes to the piece. Conversely, ramping up the tempo, either gradually or through a rapid jump, can add a sense of excitement and vitality to a performance.

A stylistic change like the introduction of staccato notes on the melody can keep the audience interested and on their toes.

Admittedly, it’s also a lot of fun!

If you’re playing with a partner or in a group, then it’s a bit trickier to pull tempo changes on the fly - but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible! Having a signal (or even several, to represent different tempos) that you discuss beforehand with your group can let you all improvise on the same page without stepping on one another's toes (hopefully in the musical sense, and not a literal one!).

What To Take Away

The biggest takeaway point that this article hopes to illustrate is this: Music has rules, and those rules were made to be broken. You don’t have to stick to convention when improvising - as an artist you are your own boss.

You can play what sounds good to your ear and what you enjoy!