Anyone Can Improvise!

Easy Improvising with the White-note Modes and Other Exotic Scales

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The modes came to us from ancient Greece, and are easiest to see, understand and play on the white notes. Here they are:

Fig 3.1a - Ionian mode (our major scale)

Fig 3.1b - Dorian mode (flattened 3rd and 6th compared to our major scale - many English folk tunes are in this mode e.g. Drunken Sailor and Scarborough Fair)

Fig 3.1c - Phrygian mode (flattened 2nd, 3rd 6th and 7th compared to our major scale which gives it a Spanish flavour)

Fig 3.1d - Lydian mode (raised 4th compared to our major scale - the theme tune for The Simpsons is in this mode)

Fig 3.1e - Mixolydian mode (flattened 7th compared to our major scale - Scottish bagpipes are tuned to this mode and many popular tunes use it e.g. Flower of Scotland and Norwegian Wood)

Fig 3.1f - Aeolian mode (flattened 3rd, 6th and 7th compared to our major scale. It is our natural minor scale and is used in a variety of music from folk to classical)

Templates for improvising

Below are two templates for improvising, the first in the Dorian mode and the second in the Phrygian mode. Notice that they use simple, repeated bass patterns, and that the right hand can either improvise in a five finger position or full scale. Paradoxically, limiting your choice of notes in these ways can help you feel safe, and the safer you feel the more you will find yourself daring to experiment within the safe parameters. In other words, the limitations help you to be more creative.

Once you’ve got the hang of it you will find you can easily make up your own repeated bass patterns in any mode or scale, and improvise over them.

Using images to inspire you

Also, you can use images related to the sound and mood of the mode, to inspire you. For example, an image of the English countryside for the Dorian mode, Spanish dancers for the Phrygian mode or a ruined castle in a Celtic land for the Aeolian mode. Images are easy to google, or you can use your personal favourites from your phone or iPad.

Fig 3.2 - A template for improvising in the Dorian mode

Fig 3.3 - An example of an image of the English countryside to inspire improvisation in the Dorian mode

Fig 3.4 - A template for improvising in the Phrygian mode

Fig 3.5 - An example of an image featuring Spanish dancers to inspire improvisation in the Phrygian mode

General tips

  • A rhythmically secure and consistent repeated bass pattern makes the improvisation sound convincing and easily absorbs “wrong-sounding” notes. So focus on the left hand and make sure that the right hand improvisation is no more ambitious than the demands of the left hand allow.
  • Decide on simple hand positions in the key e.g. a five-finger position ascending from the tonic, or descending from the upper tonic. Only use the full scale if you are confident.
  • Remember that playing by step, up and down, tends to work better and sound more musical than including too many skips and leaps.
  • Begin with a short phrase (the given one, or your own) and continue playing simply and naturally. It usually helps to think in phrases, often in pairs of “question” and “answer”. There are usually four phrases, or multiples of four (eight, twelve or sixteen) phrases per piece, or improvisation.
  • If you don’t like, or are surprised by, the sound of the note you’re on, slip to the note next door. Or repeat it, as though you meant it all along!
  • Develop your existing ideas before moving on to new ideas. Typical ways to develop phrases include repeating them (perhaps an octave higher), decorating them, inverting them and playing in double thirds (examples below).

    Fig 3.6 - Examples for developing existing ideas

    However, beware of “trying” to do any of these things, they are just ideas in case you want some. It’s a common mistake to try too hard, think too much and incorporate too many ideas. If you remain interested in what you are playing - however many time you repeat an idea, your listeners will be interested too. Just follow your musical instinct and let your improvisation unfold naturally.
  • Finally, always bring your improvisation to a musically satisfying end, probably on the key chord.

Group Improvisation – for two or more people

Improvisations provide a great deal of opportunity for teachers, pupils, families and friends to enjoy playing together, with everyone able to participate at their own level. When playing with two or more people, only one person needs to play a repeated bass and everyone can choose whether to play with one or both hands.

If two or more people want to play different, but musically compatible, basses (as in the Aeolian mode examples below), it sounds best if they enter at four-bar intervals, gradually building up the bass sound as a whole. When every bass has entered, players can begin improvising with their right hands, listening and responding to each other’s ideas so there is a sense of conversation between everybody. Players can then either bring their own parts to an end individually, or be guided to a simultaneous close, on the key chord.

Fig 3.7 - Solo or group improvising in the Aeolian mode

Fig 3.8 - An example of an image of an Irish castle to inspire improvisation in the Aeolian mode

Now you will be able to improvise in any key or scale

Finally, remember that all of these ideas are only intended as starting points. Feel free to adapt them in any way you choose, varying time signatures, repeated basses, chord progressions, rhythms and melodic ideas, and you will find that you can apply them to any key or scale, including those you invent yourself. See what you can make of the following:

Fig 3.9 - Other scales

Further reading and resources

  • Printable scores (click here to download)
  • For more ideas and help see Piano by Ear: Learn to play by ear, improvise and accompany songs in simple steps (click here)