Secrets of Improvisation: Improvisation Made Easy

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Welcome to, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about improvising using diatonic seventh chords. I’ve been to many conservatories and master classes. Improvisation is almost never taught unless you’re a jazz major. It’s really shameful. As a matter of fact, I remember once meeting a pianist who was doing master’s work at Julliard in piano performance who couldn’t play Happy Birthday by ear! Isn’t that a sad fact? I’m here to show you some very simple improvisation techniques you can use in your playing. If you’re a sophisticated jazz player, this might not be of great value to you, although you might get something out of it. But for those of you who think you can’t improvise, you can! A great deal just comes down to having a command of some basic theory.

You have to know what notes to choose among when you’re improvising.

I’ve talked about simple things like improvising utilizing the dorian mode, but today is a little bit different. I’m going to talk about diatonic seventh chords. Now, that’s a mouthful! What am I talking about? First of all, what are seventh chords? I’ll just give a very quick theory primer, because it’s not that complex. It’s only complex if you don’t know your key signatures and your major scales. You have to learn those first before you can do much of anything with improvisation. It also is unbelievably helpful for your sight reading and learning music. So any of you who haven’t learned your key signatures, I highly recommend it. I’m going to assume you know your key signatures for this lesson, because it’s all based upon that. If you would like a video tutorial on key signatures, just let me know in the comments.

What are diatonic chords?

Well, first of all, what are chords? Chords are notes arranged in the interval of thirds. What are thirds? Thirds are notes of the scale that are three notes apart counting the first and last note. The notes in a scale are all seconds apart. If you skip one note between each scale degree, you have thirds. 7th chords consist of 4 notes: a root, third, fifth and seventh. That’s why they’re called seventh chords! The interesting thing is that you can do this in any major key. If you are in C major, you play every other white key going up from C to form a 4 note chord, C – E – G – B. If you are in D major, you can leave out every other note of the D major scale. You’re left with a D major 7th chord: D – F-sharp – A – C-sharp. You can do this in any key. But that’s just the one-seven chord. That’s a seventh chord built on the first scale degree. What about a two-seven chord? You can start on the second scale degree and have a two-seven. So in C-major, a two-seven will be D – F – A – C. You can start on the third scale degree and have a three-seven chord, and so on.

How does this apply to improvisation?

If you just want to play something really simple, you can go from a one-seven chord to a two-seven chord, back and forth. You can use any note of the scale to make up a tune in your right hand. If you find that easy, you can continue going up to three-seven, then to four-seven, then back down to three-seven, two-seven and finally one-seven. It’s a lot less complicated than it sounds. Here’s the beauty of it: you don’t have to play fast. A lot of times, people see great artists playing a mile a minute and think you have to play fast to improvise. You don’t have to play fast! You just have to make melodies. Strive for something that you would want to sing. It doesn’t have to be fast. It doesn’t have to be technical.

If you find that you’re having difficulty, the difficulty is most likely going to be with your left hand, believe it or not.

It can be challenging keeping the left hand rhythmically coherent, where you’re not changing the chords in random fashion, but holding each of them the same amount of time. You can use a metronome for that. Or better yet, find a drum beat on your keyboard or on YouTube to play along with. The best way is to play with other musicians where there’s give and take. But you can get your feet wet just by finding a drum beat to play along with. YouTube is loaded with drum beats. Just come up with any kind of drum beat you can imagine, like lounge drums, swing, or a shuffle drum beat, and you’ll find them at different speeds (BPM, Beats Per Minute). People have posted just about every kind of beat you can imagine on there! Find one that’s a speed you like, and then experiment!

Try it out for yourself!

Start off in C major. If you’ve never improvised before, just go from a one-seven to a two-seven in C major – back and forth holding each chord for 4 beats. Make sure you maintain the integrity of the comping. In your right hand, just play any white keys. Try to vary how long you hold notes. And play some notes at the same time you play the chords, and sometimes play chords without playing notes at the same time in your right hand. If you have friends who play music, comp for them and let them solo, and then let them comp for you while you solo. Comping is playing the chords behind the solo. Improvising by yourself, where you’re doing both the comping and the soloing is hard at first. If you have musical friends, this can be so much fun for you! When you get into things like blues, and if you learn how to read a lead sheet, which has just the chord symbols and the melody line, it opens up vast possibilities of music for you in a myriad of styles from folk to rock to new age, jazz, blues, country, you name it! This is a great way to get your feet wet. Let me know what you think! I’m Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Resource.

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10 thoughts on “Secrets of Improvisation: Improvisation Made Easy”

      1. I sent a long message to your email….. I concur …. great video… just the start of what I hope you will create into a series… kids switched from piano to guitar over the last 20 years… BUT… they are starting to come back to piano now… and NOW your series could show them how the piano is an entire orchestra for creation…. not just strumming chords, or playing single note melodies, or finger picking….

      2. Remarkably, guitar isn’t even popular anymore. Check out what the top 10 music sounds like today, and you will be amazed. But piano will always endure the ages!

  1. That’s a little bit different from what I seek to do, and the difficulties I face. The dominant 7 chord makes it sound jazzy, and I’m interested in a classical sound. My main problem is just not being able to think that fast, and translate what I am thinking into my fingers.

    1. There are some simple improvisations you can try, like black keys. Since they form a pentatonic scale, all the notes sound good together! It’s much easier to do this 4-hand with someone comping on the bottom of the keyboard with someone else forming melodies on top. (G-flat major to e-flat minor can work with a rhythmic feel.)

      Another good way to improvise is D minor to G major 6/4 (G major chord with D on the bottom). Go back and forth with your left hand while playing any notes of the dorian mode in the right hand (all white keys). Try these out for yourself and see if you can have some fun with it!

  2. Hi Robert, just watched your video on improvisation. Yes please on more videos on theory, scales, intervals etc. I don’t have a proper understanding of terms such as Dorian, pentatonic, etc. In fact I don’t think I can even pronounce all these fancy scale names. I think guitarists are more familiar with them rather than pianists. Many thanks 👌

    1. I have received quite a few messages from people wanting a deeper understanding of music theory. So, you can look forward to videos covering these topics in the near future!

  3. Thank you, Robert. I totally agree with you about the importance of knowing key signatures whenever improvising or playing music. I use a “Key Of” plan handout which I would give to students to help them memorize the number of sharps and flats of each key. It seems to simplify learning the piano for them. Thanks, again for all of your valuable videos. They are greatly appreciated.

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