Improvising over a chord progression

Daniel Stevens

Another way to spontaneously create music is to take a keyboard, guitar, or other chord instrument, choose a simple harmonic progression, and then activate each harmony with as inventive a figuration as you can create. Few things are as energizing and enjoyable as riffing freely on a chord progression. You can explore figurations that are metered or unmetered, structured or atmospheric, simple or complex. You can create figurations within a narrow range or those that expand to include the entire range of the instrument. Playing with contrasting registers, dynamics, articulations, embellishing tones, rhythms, harmonic durations, and other effects are all on the table in this activity. As always, work to integrate your ear, mind, and body by letting your ear guide the creative act as much as possible. Listen ahead, and try to anticipate and prepare harmonic changes.

Activity: Improvise over a given chord progression

Goal: Freely improvise patterns and other figurations on a chord instrument.

Requirement: A keyboard, guitar, or other chord instrument

  1. Choose a simple chord progression two to four chords in length. Some good patterns to start with include: I–IV (one-chord to four-chord), I–V (one-chord to five-chord), I–IV–V (one-chord to four-chord to five-chord), or I–V–vi–IV (one-chord to five-chord to six-chord to four-chord). The last progression is used in numerous popular songs.
  2. Make some preliminary decisions about how you want your improvisation to sound. Decide the key, meter (or if it will be ametric), tempo, register, rhythmic groove (if applicable), and the intended duration of each harmony.
  3. Begin improvising over your chord progression. Play through the harmonic pattern five to ten times to get comfortable with the pattern, voice leading, and the feel of the pattern in your body.
  4. As you improvise try manipulating one or more elements to change the feel of your improvisation.




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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Daniel Stevens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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