How to Improvise Contemporary Piano (Beginner)
Get free weekly lessons, practice tips, and downloadable resources to your inbox!
Are you a beginner pianist who wants to learn how to improvise piano? Most students think that they have to train for years and years before they can improvise piano. However, this could not be further from the truth. You can actually start improvising beautiful contemporary piano today if you understand how to use Improv Tools. These are piano techniques that you can use to create endless beautiful piano lines. In this piano lesson, you will learn:
- A gorgeous piano chord progression
- The most important scale to improvise beginner contemporary piano
- Lower position soloing
- The 3 Essential Improv Tools
- 3 Guidelines to Creating Lines
- 3 Example Lines
Whether you are new to improvising piano or you have some experience improvising, this lesson will help you take your piano creations to the next level. Let’s dive in!
Beginner Piano Improvisation Step 1: Chords
The first step to improve beginner piano is to choose a chord progression that is simple and repetitive. This way, you can focus on your right hand improvisation without needing to think very much about the left hand.
The 6-5-4-5 Progression
One of the best progressions to get started with improvisation is the 6-5-4-5 progression. It is a beautiful progression and it is used on many different songs and musical themes. Here is the basic chord progression in C:
The names of these chords are A minor, G major, and F major. Do you notice that all of these chords use white notes? With this knowledge, we can determine the underlying scale that these chords from, the C scale:
Since these chords come from the C Major Scale, you can think of each chord as being built on a different note from the scale. For example, the A is the 6th note of the C Major Scale, so we call it a 6 chord. The G is the 5th note of the C scale, so we call it a 5 chord. And the F is the 4th note of the C scale, so we call it a 4 chord. Therefore, we have a 6-5-4-5 chord progression.
If these chords look unfamiliar to you, can you learn all of your major and minor chords in our Level 1 Foundations Learning Track.
These chords sound very nice. However, we can make these chords a lot more interesting by spreading the notes out and altering just a couple notes here and there. Next, we’ll discuss how to spread the notes of the chords out.
Spreading the Notes Out
If you really want to play chords at an enjoyable level, you should spread the notes of the chords out. For example, you can take each of the above chords you learned and spread them out like this:
Now, this is sounding much better! What we are doing here is spreading each chord out so that the middle note of the original chord is now on the top. We call these “arpeggiated 10ths”, and they make a great sounding left hand accompaniment. For more left hand accompaniment patterns, checkout our Pop Accompaniment Patterns Courses (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).
However, there is one additional modification that I like to make to these chords, which I call inverted chords.
Modifying the 5 Chord to an Inverted Chord
When you learned the 5 chord, G Major, you learned the notes G, B, and D. However, you can make this chord a little more interesting by changing the D to an E. What you end up with is a new chord called E minor:
Now, if you keep the G on the bottom and play your arpeggiated 10ths with this chord, you end up with this pattern:
Doesn’t this sound great? Just a small modification like this can make all the difference in the chord. I recommend practicing this chord progression with the included backing track, which can be downloaded at the bottom of this page after logging into your membership.
Next, you’ll learn the best scale to use for your right hand improvisation.
The Best Scale for Beginner Piano Improv
Now that you’ve learned the left hand chords, it’s time to learn the best scale to improvise over this chord progression. Because all of the chords from from the C Major Scale, the best scale to use is the C Major Scale:
Low Position Improvisation
Now, if you are just getting started with improv, it’s best not to use the full scale to start improvising. Instead, it’s best to start with only the bottom 5 notes of the scale with the notes C, D, E, F, and G:
If you don’t know your major scales, you can learn them in all 12 keys in our Level 1 Foundations Learning Track.
Now that you’ve learned the best scale to improvise in the right hand, next you’ll learn the 3 essential improv tools.
3 Improv Tools for Beginner Piano Improv
It’s important to learn a scale to improvise, but that is not enough. You need to understand what to do with the scale to make it sound interesting. In this section, we’ll cover the 3 tools that I recommend using if you are a beginner improviser.
The first tool that I like to use when improvising is 8th notes. This is the most basic note value that improvisers use when creating their piano solo, it’s essential to master this first. For the 8th note exercise, we will play the Low Position notes up and down. For example, you can play the 8th note exercise over the first chord, A minor, like this:
I recommend playing this right hand pattern over the full left hand chord progression. The nice thing about 8th notes is that they line up exactly with the left hand. In other words, you will play one note in the right hand for every note in the left hand. Next, you will learn the 16th note exercise.
16th Note Exercise
If you want to create excitement in your improvisation, look no further than 16th notes! 16th notes are the second most commonly used improv technique, and they create a lot of motion in your playing. Here is an essential 16th note exercise to practice in the lower position:
With 16th notes, you will play 2 note in the right hand for every note in the left hand accompaniment. It’s important to practice lining up the hands with this exercise. Next, you’ll learn the turn exercise.
If 8th notes and 16th notes are the layers of the cake, then turns are the icing on the cake. Turns make your improvisation really sparkle, so it’s essential to use them through-ought your improvisation. Here is what turns sound like with the accompaniment:
Isn’t that a great sound?!? If you want to learn more contemporary accompaniment improvisation tools like this, checkout our Contemporary Progressions & Improv Course (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced).
Now that you’ve learned the 3 tools, it’s time to start improvising! In the next section, we’ll review the 3 Guidelines to crafting a beautiful piano solo.
3 Guidelines to Soloing
Playing a beautiful piano solo is much more than learning a chord progression, a scale, and some improv techniques. For example, you could use all the techniques you learned above and your solo might sound very repetitive and uninspired. To make your improvisation sound interesting, you need to learn the 3 Guidelines to Soloing:
- Leave Gaps In-Between Lines
- Start Each Line On a Different Note
- Start Each Line On a Different Beat
Leave Gaps In-Between Lines
When you play your beginner piano improvisation, you do not want to play a long string of notes without a gap. Otherwise, your improvisation will sound like a long run-on sentence! Instead, you should leave little gaps in-between your lines/phrases. A gap is a lot like a period that separates a sentence, and it’s crucial to take these little musical “breaths” to help separate your musical ideas.
Start Each Line On a Different Note
One of the most common mistakes beginner piano improvisers make is that they start each line on the same note. For example, they might start every line on the first note of the scale, C. It’s important to be aware of this and challenge yourself to start on other notes from the scale. This way, each line will sound fresh and interesting.
Start Each Line On a Different Beat
Many beginner pianists are not always aware of the beat they are starting their line on. For example, many pianists start every line on beat 1. If you play this way, your lines will sound very bland. Instead, challenge yourself to start on other beats like beat 2, 3, or 4.
Now that you’ve learned the 3 guidelines to soloing, it’s time to start creating your improvisation.
Creating Your Improvisation
Congratulations! You’re ready to start improvising your own contemporary piano solo. While it might be tempting to try using all 3 Soloing Techniques, I recommend focusing on one at a time.
8th Note Improvisation Example
Now that you are ready to improvise beginner piano, the first step is to experiment with 8th notes to create lines. You can start on any of the notes from the Low Position of the C Major Scale with the notes C, D, E, F, and G. Pick any note to start on and work up and down these 5 notes. Make sure to leave little gaps in your lines, and try starting each phrase on a new note. Here is an example of an improvisation that uses 8th notes:
If you struggle to read sheet music, I recommend checking out this lesson’s Smart Sheet Music. With this resource, you can slow the sheet music down with a digital light-up keyboard, loop sections, and practice this lesson in all 12 keys with the click of one button.
Next, let’s discuss how to use 16th notes in your improvisation.
16th Note Improvisation Example
Now that you can play 8th notes, try using 16th notes in your lines. Remember that 16th notes are played with 2 notes in the right hand for each accompaniment note in the left hand. Here is an example of how to use 16th notes in your lines:
Finally, let’s discuss on how to use turns in your lines.
Turn Improvisation Example
Remember that turns are the “icing on the cake”, so we want to throw them periodically in our solo to give it some sweet flavor. Here is an example of how I use turns in an improvisation:
Now that you’ve explored all 3 Improv options, what’s next? I recommend that you try combining all 3 options into your solo. Once you are feeling comfortable with this, you can expand your improvisation by using more notes of the C Major Scale.
If you’re not sure how to invent interesting lines, I recommend checking out our Contemporary Progressions & Improv Course (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced). In this course, you learn more chord progressions and improv techniques.
Another excellent contemporary improv course is our Love Progression Challenge, where you learn how to improvise over the most common progression used in love songs.
That’s all for this Quick Tip. Thanks for learning, and see you in the next one!
More Free Lessons
In honor of Thanksgiving, I wanted to express my gratitude towards music. Hopefully, this will inspire you to reflect upon how music has impacted your life in a positive way.
This month, we're learning about Art Tatum, a fascinating American pianist whose influence on jazz music is sometimes overlooked, yet legendary.
Level-up your jazz piano voicings for the 2-5-1 chord progression by exploring critical considerations in 5 levels—from beginner to pro!
Looking for downloads?
Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!
The Piano With Jonny Membership
Guided Learning Tracks
View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels
Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress
Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks
Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums
Become a better piano player today. Start your free 14-day trial today!