Improvise: to produce without preparation; to make up and perform with little or no preparation; to compose and perform at the same time.
In music, this usually refers to making up a melody over a chord progression1. This is a very easy and fun thing to do, if you know how. So how do you learn? The first thing is to realize that even though improvisation is done without preparation, there is a lot of things you can study and practice to improve this skill and make it more fun. Learn all your scales and chords inside and out. Experiment. Listen to a lot of different players.
Improvising music is very much like talking. Most people improvise conversation everyday. How long did it take to learn to do this? How did you learn to talk? Well, just like when you were growing up, start simple. Practice making up melodies without chords by using only a few notes or one scale at a time.
Chick Corea2 once said, “Play only what you hear. If you don’t hear anything, don’t play anything.” What does that mean? Well, it means to play only what you create in your mind, what you “hear” in your mind. And that is the goal: PLAY ONLY WHAT YOUR HEAR. And how can you get to that point?
Again, let’s compare improvising music to talking. When you tell a friend about a cool movie you saw last week, you get an idea and then say words to communicate your thoughts. The same thing should happen when you improvise. Get an idea of some sounds and then play those sounds. In other words, PLAY ONLY WHAT YOU HEAR.
My advice is to start simple. First learn to play over one chord, then two chords, then the 12 Bar Blues1, etc. Continue working up to improvising over a whole tune, but even then start with easier tunes like Pop or Country. After that you’ll be able to move on to Jazz.
Keep in mind the goal is to ‘play what you hear’ (play what you are creating in your mind). To develop that skill, you should often sing “la” or “da” when you practice improvisation.
Music is made up of melody, harmony, and rhythm. To become a great improviser, you have to learn a lot about all three of these subjects.
Above all, have fun!
1 Chord Progression: a sequence of chords played in a song.
2 Chick Corea: American jazz pianist and composer; b. Massachusetts June 12, 1941.