Instrument Improvisation Is Important

Sep 04, 2021

Instrument improvisation is important. 

I would go so far as to say it is the single most important skill to my songwriting.

If you can always come up with a joke in real time, I bet you can write a funny joke when given a couple hours.

So, if you can create original music in real time, I bet you can create some pretty great music in a couple hours.


It Makes Music Theory Practical

One reason that instrument improvisation is important is it makes music theory knowledge practical. At the end of the day, music theory is only useful insofar as it is practical.

Knowing the purpose of a sus chord or the power of a I chord is only useful if you know how to use them in the music you actually write

Improvisation helps you to see music at a whole other level. Instead of thinking about keys and chords, you begin to just see it. 

You may have noticed that learning basically falls into the following phases.

The first phase is the “I have no idea” phase. This is when you know nothing about something or maybe never even heard of something at all. 

Not only do you not know how to play a Sharpsichord, but you’re pretty sure you’ve never even heard of it. Don’t feel bad, I hadn’t either until I searched for the most rare instruments in the world just to type that last sentence.

The second phase is the “I think I’ve heard that before” phase. This is when you don’t remember if you’ve heard of a Sharpsichord before, but you think you’ve heard of it before as it sounds vaguely familiar.

The third phase is the “Now that you mention it, I think I knew that before” phase. This is when even a slight hint would help you remember the answer. You didn’t know it off the top of your head, but you did know it.

The  fourth phase is the “I know that” phase. This is when you know something but you don’t have it ingrained in you yet. It’s when you may know how to play a song but if somebody were to distract you, you probably would lose your spot.

The final phase of learning is the “I can do it without even thinking about it” phase. This is when you know something so well that you can do it almost without thinking at all.

This phase is when you’re playing a song on the piano and can have a whole conversation with someone at the same time. It’s your hands moving and catching a ball without even thinking about it. At this point, we usually call this “muscle memory”. 

A soccer player just knows how to kick a ball, right? They don’t have to think about where their laces should be or what part of their foot they need to use. They just know how to dribble and kick the ball without really thinking about it.

Improvisation helps you achieve that level of comfort with creating original music on the fly with your music theory knowledge. You just know what types of chord changes, intervals, and melodies you have at your disposal.

You no longer have to think to yourself “Do I have an F in the key of C?” You just know what notes and chords you have to work with, and can use them effectively without much thought.


It Teaches Creativity On The Fly

How do you measure an electrician? You probably measure an electrician by their speed and quality versus the price they charge. 

Are they a great electrician if they take two months to do a one-week project? Even if they are at a fair price and their quality is great, their speed will become a serious issue. Similarly, if you can learn to be creative and sound good on the fly, that helps increase your songwriting ability.

Think about it. What’s one of your biggest creative hindrances?

If you’re like most people, it’s probably not knowing where to start. It’s that staring-at-a-blank-page experience.

If you can improvise, your creativity becomes automatic and you never have a blank page, you have a running engine that you simply kick into gear. You don’t need to start the engine, it’s already going.

This helps you find your creative avenue. Otherwise, you need to generate or create all your ideas. Sometimes finding them is quicker and better.

Say you’re buying a house and need to furnish it. Would it be better to try to think of every single item you need? Or would it be better to walk through a store, through every aisle, and find the things you need?

You might have forgotten to get pans and spatulas if you didn’t go to the store, right? How could you possibly expect yourself to remember everything off the top of your head? 

But, when you’re walking through Walmart, going through every aisle, you see what you need. It’s easy to forget a pot and pan when you’re trying to think of all of your bedding, TV, and table needs. 

It’s a lot harder to forget pots and pans when you walk directly past them. 

The best way to metaphorically walk past original music ideas? Improvising.


Simplifies The Writing Process

Improvisation is important because it allows you to just jump In.

If you played sports as a kid, what did you like better, playing the games and scrimmage, or drills?

If “playing soccer” meant only doing dribbling drills, would you have done it?

Probably not. In fact, scrimmage helped to make practice worth going to, right?

I bet you feel the same way about practicing your scales. 

It’s fine for 10 minutes, but, at the end of the day, the scales are just to become more proficient at your instrument, so you can play more difficult and enjoyable songs.

I get it, music theory might not always be a blast to learn. 

I get it, sometimes even songwriting can feel like a chore when you’re sitting at your piano, waiting for the piano to play itself.

But, when you learn to improvise, it’s taking your music theory knowledge and just playing. You can just play music off the top of your head for hours. 

This allows you to dive right into songwriting instead of having to think about it. Instead of trying to figure out what note to start with and what intervals to try, you just play until you find something you like. 

How awesome is that?

Even if you improvise for an hour and don’t come up with something you want to develop into a song, it was still fun.

If you practiced scales for an hour and found out it was all for nothing, you’d probably be ticked.

But when you enjoy playing music for an hour, you don’t care so much about the progress.

You just get better while also having fun. Win-win.

This also allows you to improvise other parts of your song instead of painstakingly writing them. 

Do you really want to write out all the notes of your guitar solo, only to find out it doesn’t even sound good?

Or, would you rather loop your song and continue to have fun improvising over it until you improvise cool stuff you like?

I’m going to guess you like option 2 better. 

That’s the beauty of learning instrument improvisation.

And that, my friend, is what a basic knowledge of music theory gives you.

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