A Note: I come from a musical group (harpers) where the basic tuning is in the key of C. That’s reflected in a lot of things below. Any references to notes assume the key of C, but they can be transposed to other keys and will certainly still work!
Psyching UpImprovisation is not a super-advanced technique that only highly-skilled instrumentalists can master. It can help to have an understanding of musical theory and structure, either from a book or from experience in playing written songs, so it is perhaps best thought of as an "intermediate" skill. However, it would not surprise me to find a fearless novice doing well with it.
But before you can do it, you have to believe that you can do it.
Getting Over the Fear of "Wrong Notes"Repeat after me: There are no wrong notes.
It’s improvisation. You’re making it up as you go. If there are no notes pre-determined at all, how can any be "right" or "wrong?"
Yes, some things don’t sound very melodious. But it is a valid technique in music to use small dissonances to create tension and movement in a piece! If you play a note which wasn’t what you intended, and perhaps jars the ear, just move on and resolve the tension.
Allow Your Audience to Love YouYour audience is likely to be very appreciative of your music. They are grateful to you for bringing music into their encampment or event.
They do not know what you are playing, and if it is “supposed” to be that way or not. If you do not grimace, stop, shake your head, sigh, squint, or otherwise indicate that you have done something with which you are not 100% pleased, the odds are extremely good that they will never know. They will love the music and thank you for playing. Accept the compliments with grace. “Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it” is totally honest, even if you think your playing was terrible.
Once you can accept that fact that no, really, people do like your music, you will have much more confidence.
Relax and Let the Instrument WorkIf you have a hard time placing confidence in yourself, put confidence in your instrument. If you can pull five clear notes from it, you can make good music. You don’t have to play very fast or with lots of ornaments. Slow bits sound reflective or sad; medium-paced bits are pleasant sounds. Go at whatever speed you are comfortable and trust the voice of your instrument to please the audience.
Ways to Build an Improv
ScalesMany of the world’s best-loved pieces of music involve simple motion up and down the scale, with different note values, changes in direction, and occasional repeated notes adding interest. Pick out “Ode to Joy” or “Joy to the World” and see what I mean.
There is nothing wrong with playing a note, then one of the two notes next to it, and repeating that last step until you are bored with it. Just noodle up and down a bit. If you get daring, you can skip some of the notes in between. Repeated Patterns As you are playing around, you might play a few bars of melody that you like. As best you can, repeat it. If you need to, repeat it again (maybe starting on a different note?). There’s your “chorus.”
Now move a few notes away, and play something else for a few bars. As you’re winding that down, play a few notes leading back to your chorus, then play it. Repeat this (you don’t even have to have the same “verses” in between) and you will probably fool your audience into thinking that you’re playing a known song.
Broken ChordsYou can think of broken chords as a very small, simple pattern. But it’s a little more useful to think of them as an open structure to build on. Throw in a few ornamental notes in between the chord notes.
Chord “inversions” are a nice way of changing things around. To play an inversion, you mix the order of the notes. If the basic “C” chord is C-E-G, with C at the bottom and G on top, then the first inversion is E-G-C and the second inversion is G-E-C, with the first note being the lowest and the last being the highest in all cases.
A lot of modern music is based around the I – IV – V chord progression. The I chord sounds cheerful or grounded. The IV chord is energetic and going somewhere. The V chord is a little tense, a little worried – and then you finish with the I chord again, making everything all right. You aren’t playing these chords on a melody instrument of course – but if you can manage the trick of keeping them in your head, you can give your music a feeling of structure.
For example, in the key of C:
For the first two bars, start on C and be sure to hit Cs, Es and Gs on the main stressed notes. Fill in the unstressed notes with whatever strikes your fancy.
For the next two bars, start on an F and hit an F, A and a C on the main stressed notes.
For another (guess what) two bars, start on a G or D and hit Gs, Bs and Ds on the stresses.
Then end on a bar or two that starts with an E or a G and make the last note of your song a C.
“Melody Phrases”Once you have been playing long enough to learn a few songs, you may start to notice certain patterns. How many songs (in the key of C) start out G-A-C or G-B-C? You’ve probably also played the D-B-C ending, where the melody makes that little dip before finally resting on tonic. You audience of listeners is familiar with these little phrases, too, and if you can insert one into your improv at an appropriate point, they will notice and it will sound “right” to them. I find them most useful as starters or as endings, but use them wherever you think they would be useful or interesting.
Playing PentatonicThe traditional Western major scale has eight tones. A pentatonic scale has five.
Just like the white keys on a piano, starting on C, demonstrate a major scale, so do the black keys, starting on C#, demonstrate a pentatonic scale. On an instrument tuned in C, you can find two pentatonic scales: CDFGA and DEGAB.
In a given pentatonic scale, you can play virtually any note combination and it will sound melodious and pleasing. Meditative chimes and the like are often tuned to pentatonic scales.
Use a Limited RangeI first learned improvisation because I’d purchased an Anglo-Saxon lyre with six strings and six notes to go with them. There aren’t too many songs that only take six notes. So I started seeing what I could do within that limit. The answer is: quite a bit!
Placing a limit on how far either hand can wander forces you to avoid aimlessly wandering up and down, and encourages dynamic movement in your piece.
Constructed PatternsThis is for instruments with large ranges. Sometimes, you may discover a pattern of notes that is pleasant to repeat over and over, starting on different notes.
Example in the key of C: CG CDEFG, start low and just keep going up
Some personal experimentation quickly found that there are a whole bunch of similarly constructed sequences that are also nice: start with the open interval of your choice, then move up an octave and play some “scale-like” music until you’ve filled the bar.
Fifths and fourths work well for this. I tried sixths and didn’t like starting the second “part” an octave above tonic. I tried “octave plus a third” and it was nice, but harder to locate after moving to a new location. You’ll find what pleases your ears and your hands. Physical Improv Your instrument may or may not lend itself to this. I’ve had some recent interesting results (on harp) fixing my hands on 6 or 8 strings and playing what feels right in my fingers. Focus more on the physicality of the act of playing, not so much the tones that are coming out of the instrument. It’s a very different avenue!
Periodifying ItThe methods above – especially the chord method – are for relatively modern-sounding music. This is what most people in the SCA are used to hearing, whether it is in the form of very modern filks, nineteenth century folk songs, or eighteenth century bawdy tunes. Real medieval music sounds very different. Below are two suggestions for more medieval-sounding music.
Play in a ModeThe key of D major includes C# and F#. But what if you just started on D and played up the white keys on a piano? You will have played a modal scale – in this case, the Dorian mode. Modal music was pretty common in period. If you’ve ever heard a piece that seemed unfinished to you, it was probably modal: it ended on the modal tonic, which is not the major tonic you’re expecting to hear.
To play in a mode is simple: just use any of the above techniques, but pretend D (or some other note) is C. I sometimes play a modal scale through once or twice before starting, to get my ear and my audience’s ear accustomed to the different sound.
Another Note: Some people say that “Dorian starts on D” but that’s not always true. I have a harp tuned diatonically (do-re-mi scale only, no sharps or flats) in the key of G. My Dorian scale starts on “re,” which on that harp is an A.
The early medieval modes were:
Later, Ionian (do-re-mi…) and Aeolian (la-ti-do-re…) were added – we know those two as the major and minor scales. The mode starting on “ti” is called Lochrian, and musicologists argue over whether or not any songs “in period” were ever written using it.
Use “Home and Away” StructureMedieval music does not typically follow I – IV – V chord structures. Much of it can be called “home and away,” though. The song will start on the modal equivalent of a I chord. For example in Dorian mode starting on D, the stressed notes will be mostly Ds, Fs and As. This may continue for quite a few bars! This is “home.”
Then the song goes “away.” While my experience is not exhaustive, I have found a lot of “away” to be the notes corresponding to the related Ionian mode – so, in our example, a lot of Cs, Es and Gs on the stressed notes.
And guess what? Then it comes back home again, just like a modern song returning to a I chord.
It’s not too uncommon to take a pattern and play it on the home notes, and then play the pattern on the away notes, and then return home. That’ll be part 1 of a song. There’s often a part 2, which will also start at home, go away, and come back home.
Ornamentation and VariationRelated to improvisation are these two methods for embroidering on an existing tune.
Ornamentation is the simpler of the two, but still whole classes can be taught on it. It includes techniques like grace notes, or filling an interval with the intervening scale.
Variation means taking some element of the melody and changing it, while preserving other parts of the melody. You might keep the same pattern of notes but invert them: aaF becomes aac for instance, changing the melody’s drop of a third to a rise of a third. You might take a rise of a third and explode it open to a jump of a fifth, and play some ornaments up there, before returning to the melody back down to where it ought to be. I find the trickiest thing about variation is not losing the skeleton of the actual tune in all of the dancing around with improvisations. You especially want to keep track of how many measures should be played at “home” and how many are “away,” and keep to that in your variation. Personally, I started small, with simple variations, and as I got more disciplined about counting my measures, allowed myself to get wilder.
Non-rhythmic ImprovisationI encountered this at Pennsic this year for the first time, and it blew my mind. As a harper, I’m used to having a bass hand playing some kind of rhythmic accompaniment, even if it’s just a drone. I still pluck it every measure or two.
In this one class, we started off without rhythm. The improvisations tended to be full of long, slow notes and rests, set off with delicate ornaments “every so often.” It makes for a very lovely and meditative improv.