How to Improvise Piano With the Major Scale
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Many music students make the mistake of assuming good music is complicated. Have you had this thought? It is certainly true that many great players are in fact musical geniuses. However, great music frequently involves simplicity. In today’s Quick Tip, we’ll show you how to improvise beautiful piano melodies with the major scale. If you thought the major scale was too ordinary, the simple techniques in this lesson may cause you to reconsider. You’ll learn:
- 1 Scale
- 2 Chords
- 3 Melodic Techniques
If you are a beginning improvisor, this lesson is perfect for you because the materials are narrow in scope. On the other hand, intermediate and advanced piano students will find it a suitable challenge to improvise piano lines with the major scale in a musical and effortless way.
Let’s dig in!
Piano Improv Materials
Let’s take a look at each of the materials for today’s lesson in isolation. Improvisation always takes play in a particular context that includes a key, scales, chords, style and tempo. This lesson is in F Major and features a medium tempo groove in a contemporary pop style. First, we’ll cover the notes and fingerings for the F Major scale.
F Major Piano Scale
Next, let’s cover the chords you’ll be playing with the left hand. Here are the two chords you’ll need to know:
The F(add2) chord is the 1 chord in F Major. There are two aspects about this 1 chord that are unique. Firstly, this chord is in 2nd inversion rather than root position. Since you’ll be playing along with a bass player on the backing track, it isn’t imperative for the piano to play the chord in root position. Secondly, an F(add2) features an additional note as compared to a standard F major triad. The “add2” suffix indicates the addition of the 2nd tone above the root (G). The result is a whole tone cluster (or chord cluster) of the notes F-G-A which gives the chord its contemporary sound.
Next, let’s consider the C7(sus4) chord. This is the 5 chord in F major because it is built on the 5th tone of the F major scale. This chord is special type of Dominant 7th chord that is best understood in comparison to a regular Dominant 7 chord. The “sus4” suffix indicates that the 3rd of the chord (E) is being replaced with the 4th instead (F).
This is called a suspension because in many contexts the 4th is carried over (“suspended”) from the previous chord and resolves to the 3rd after the arrival of the dominant chord. Often contemporary styles, like today’s example, do not employ the resolution of the 4th to 3rd. The result is a dominant 7th chord without a tritone which yields a less dissonant sound that is more suitable to the contemporary genre.
What is a tritone?
A tritone is the common name for an interval spanning three whole steps. It can be written on the staff as an augmented 4th (ie: E to A♯) or a diminished 5th (E to B♭). This interval has several unique characteristics. First, it is generally considered the most dissonant sounding interval. Secondly, since an octave includes twelve ½ steps and a tritone includes six ½ steps, it divides an octave perfectly in half. Thirdly, a tritone is the only interval which results in an interval of the same exact size when inverted. Finally, a tritone occurs naturally in a dominant 7th chord between the 3rd & 7th of the chord. A dominant 7sus4 chord serves to delay or remove this dissonance.
Now that you’ve learned how to construct add2 and a sus4 chords, let’s take a look at our accompaniment pattern. We’ll play a smooth contemporary “4-on-the-floor” groove in the left hand.
Great job! Next, try playing along with one of the three backing tracks. The downloadable lesson sheet and backing tracks appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Members can also easily transpose this lesson to any key with our Smart Sheet Music.
Piano Exercises to Improvise with the Major Scale
The key to improvise professional sounding lines with the major scale on piano is to resist the temptation to simply play the scale in an ascending or descending manner. The following techniques and exercises will help you physically and mentally grasp the notes of the major scale in new formations.
Technique #1—Block Shift
The first technique you can use to improvise piano with the major scale is the block shift technique. This technique places adjacent notes of the scale in groups of 4 which fit comfortably within a single hand position (or “block”). After playing each of the 4 notes in a block, you then shift your hand to another block. The example below uses a pattern of ascending notes that are connected in ascending blocks.
You can use the block shift technique to create lines of many different shapes. For example, you could connect ascending blocks as in the example above but play the notes in each group in a descending pattern. Or you can experiment even further by arranging the notes within each block in different shapes, such as 3-2-1-4. Intermediate and advanced piano students will enjoy applying the block shift technique with 16th notes or even triplet subdivisions.
Technique #2—Triad Skip
A second method to improvise with the major scale on piano is the triad skip technique. This method uses the diatonic triads within the key as source material for improvisation. Like the block shift technique, you will move your hand to subsequent triad shapes as your melodic line ascends or descends.
The exercise below presents each 3 note triad as a group of 4 eighth notes by simply repeating the 3rd of the triad. This of course is not the only way to apply the triad skip principle. However, many pianists find it helpful to wield their source material in 4 note cells because it allows for immediate application within an 8th note or 16th note framework.
Technique #3—The Turn
Our third and final technique to improvise piano lines with the major scale uses a melodic ornament called a turn. This ornament occurs frequently in nearly every genre. A turn centers around a target note and uses the notes immediately above and below the target note to create a quick melodic embellishment. In the exercise below, the target note for the first turn is F. However, you can play a turn from any note using these 4 simple steps.
- Play the target note.
- Play the upper neighbor to the target note.
- Repeat the target note.
- Play the lower neighbor to the target note.
Now try playing a turn on each scale tone in F Major.
Great job! This exercise is makes for a great piano warm-up. Practicing with the included backing tracks will allow you to play close attention to your time as you play each ornament.
In conclusion, remember that the goal is not to play improv that is complicated. You want your lines to sound as simple and effortless as the major scale—just not as predictable!
If you enjoyed this Quick Tip, then you will love the following full-length courses:
- The Love Progression (Level 2)
- Contemporary Progressions and Improv 1 (Level 2)
- Contemporary Progressions and Improv 2 (Level 3)
- The Sentimental Progression 1 (Level 2)
- The Sentimental Progression 2 (Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today. We look forward to seeing you again soon!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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