Improvising Together

Making music with a group, and coming up with your own music on the spot, are both wonderful and challenging activities. Putting them together is also wonderful—and challenging! You may never plan to get on stage and improvise a song on the spot with a bunch of co-performers. But even so, group improvisation is a wonderful way to practice your listening skills and your creativity.

The exact details of how a group improvisation might work are heavily depending on the instruments involved, the styles of music each member of the ensemble is comfortable with, and more. But there is some general advice we can give.

First, it is usually helpful to set up some kind of structure beforehand. This structure might include a key or order of keys you want to go through, a meter or order of meters to go through, a general idea of who will start and when everyone else will join in, an agreement on a style or approach to music, and a sense of the length and shape of what you will come up with together.

Second, it can be useful to think of the music in relatively consistent layers. That is, each performer will decide on a role such as bass line, chords, mid-range melody, high melody, countermelody, rhythmic interest, etc., and commit to mostly performing that role. It might even be simplest, at first, to mostly focus on looping melodies or progressions so that they are easy to predict; if loops are comfortable, you can try changing melodies or chord progressions but with consistent range, shape, and length. If a single performer used their whole range of possibilities all the time, it’d be hard for others to figure out how to interact with them effectively. Of course, there should usually be changes in dynamic, character, melody, and harmony as the improvisation goes on, but performing them in a predictable, probably slow manner will help the other members of the ensemble work with you.

Third, listening is crucial. If you are not the first person to start playing, listen carefully to what is happening in the music before you join, and consider how you can add to it. As the music continues, make sure you are synced in time and meter with your ensemble. And when everything seems to be working together, try to stay alert to changes in the music. Is it speeding up? Slowing down? Getting more exciting? Calming down? Changing key/meter? Once you notice a change, consider whether you can contribute to it or whether you should simply continue what you’re doing and let the other musicians accomplish the change on their own.

Activity: Improvise together

Goal: Have fun with creativity, and integrate improvisation, ensemble skills, and listening skills.

Before you start: You’ll need a (probably small) ensemble. Any combination of instruments can work, but to help everyone come up with an appropriate role, it may be advisable to make sure there is at least one bass instrument, one melody instrument, and one chord instrument.

Instructions: Work together to decide the basic structure of the improvisation:

  • What key or keys will it be in?
  • What meter or meters will it be in? A free-flowing sense of meter is just fine; it’s often also effective to start relatively free-flowing and then gradually build up a sense of meter.
  • Is there a style or approach to music you will use to unify the ensemble?
  • Approximately how long will your improvisation last?
  • What dramatic shape do you want your improvisation to have?
  • Who will start first, and when will everyone else enter?

Then, try out the improvisation. If there is time afterwards, discuss how effective you thought the music was and how much you enjoyed it, and consider another time through with the same plan to see if you can make it more effective and/or more fun.



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

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