How to Improvise on Piano: A Beginner’s Guide

Pianote  /  Improvisation  /  Mar 29, 2024

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Do you want to learn how to improvise on piano, but don’t know where to start? You’re not alone!

If you’ve seen master improvisers play elaborate runs seemingly out of thin air, you might think that improvising is a magical power only certain musicians possess.

But improvising isn’t random. Just like speech isn’t random. We improvise every time we speak. And it feels second-nature because we’re so familiar with the tools: words, grammar, phrases, etc.

It’s the same thing with music. Improvisation is a skill that you can learn by mastering its tools. This article will walk you through some basic tenets of improvisation.

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Basic Improvisation Tools

Before you start improvising, make time to understand the tools:

  • Key signature: If you haven’t already, learn how to find what sharps or flats appear in a given key. You’ll know exactly what notes to work with when you know the key.
  • Scales: After you learn key signatures, practice the scales in those key signatures. Scales are the foundation to memorable and impressive runs in your improvisations.
  • Chords: A basic knowledge of chords goes a long way. Make sure you’re familiar with the concept of diatonic chords.
  • The number system: While understanding the number system is not required per se, it can certainly help you make sense of chord theory and to transpose songs.

Need some extra help? Check out our favorite resources:

Basic Improvisation Techniques

Here’s a pro-tip: improvisation doesn’t have to be super fancy to count as improvisation. In fact, sometimes simple is best! Here are some easy-to-understand, beginner-friendly improvisation techniques you can start today if you know the basics of piano.

In our video lesson, Justin Stanton uses the jazz classic “Autumn Leaves” by Joseph Kosma as an example. Here’s the melody we’ll work with:

Autumn Leaves melody in standard notation.

Rhythmic Variations

Guess what? You can improvise without overthinking scales, keys, chords, and all that. Simply varying the rhythm can dramatically change the character of a song. So take a melody you know and simply try playing it with a different rhythm. Draw out some notes, shorten some other ones. Add some syncopation. You can even experiment with silence!

Autumn Leaves melody with rhythmic variation in standard notation.


Now let’s try playing with the melody. We can add embellishments to the melody here and there to make it sound a little unique. For example, you can slide into a target note from a semitone above or below. You can also try enclosures—that’s when you go up and below before playing a target note (or down and above). Try not to overthink this. Just see it as adding little flourishes around an existing melody.

Autumn Leaves melody in standard notation with embellishments.

Some more examples:

Example of enclosure to target note.

Put it all together!

You can do a lot with just these two simple techniques. Try mixing things up and putting things together. See what you can create.

Embellished Autumn Leaves melody in standard notation.

5 Levels of Improvisation With Justin Stanton

Justin Stanton is a talented multi-instrumentalist known for his work as a trumpeter, keyboardist, and composer with the Grammy-winning jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy. You can now access his challenge series, “5 Levels of Improvisation,” as a Pianote Member. Not a Member yet? Try it for 7 days!


How to Improvise on Piano: Exercises for Beginners

The best way to learn how to improvise on the piano is not to read about it, but to practice with some intentional exercises. We recommend you start with these very simple ones:

Improvise with just 3 notes

> Create Emotional Piano Music (Just 3 Notes)

Now try 4 notes!

> Create Emotion With 4 Notes

Improvise with just 1 chord

> Sound Amazing on the Piano in 5 Minutes

Learn some riffs and fills

> Riffs and Fills Made Easy (or take the full course: Piano Riffs & Fills)

  • Notes that belong to the scale of the key you’re in are all fair game—they will sound good.
  • Lisa’s tip: If a note sounds bad, play the note next to it. That should solve the problem!
  • Thirds and sixths harmonize—they will sound good.
  • My tip: Trills sound cool. For a classical feel, add trills!
  • When in doubt, go back to the I chord. That’s home!

How to Improvise on Piano: Take It to the Next Level

See? Improvising isn’t scary at all!

Once you feel comfortable with the beginner exercises above, see if you can add more tools to your piano improv toolbox. Learn some fancy scales, try solo-ing, and branch out into different styles. Borrow, mix, and match from different areas.

Learn fancy scales

Expand your improv vocabulary with scales. Good scales to learn include the blues scale and the major and minor pentatonic scales.

If you’re up for a challenge, learn modes. Modes take some extra time to wrap your mind around, and there are a few funny words to memorize, but they’ll help you conquer the frequent key changes in jazz.

Try your hand at solo-ing

> Easy Piano Improvisation Exercises

Learn reharmonization

“Reharming” is a more advanced technique that can dramatically alter the mood of a song. This is what arrangers use to create an upbeat version of a moody ballad or a moody ballad version of an upbeat bop! This is also what jazz musicians use to create lush, complex sounding music. Make sure you’ve mastered chord theory before you try reharming.

> How to Arrange a Song: Arranging & Reharmonization Tips

Experiment with different styles and moods

> You’ve Never Heard “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” Like This Before!


Classical piano lessons typically don’t teach improvisation. Case in point, I (the author of the article!) didn’t really know how to improvise until I started branching out into other types of music. I first learned chord symbols through playing guitar, and then later developed an interest in jazz. It’s been a challenging yet interesting journey; here are some things I’ve learned:

  • Know your chord theory. Review your chord types, chord symbols, the chord-scale relationship, and inversion shapes! This will make learning new standards way easier.
  • Don’t worry about sounding fancy. Fancy doesn’t always sound good. It’s better to play simple and confidently than fancy and haphazardly.
  • Your musical background will help! Even if you don’t know how to improvise, you won’t start from square one. You probably have a developed sense of musicality, an understanding of theory, and even a unique sound.
  • Stay humble. If you come to improvisation as a more advanced classical pianist, you’ll likely feel frustrated because you’ll feel like a beginner again. But be humble and embrace that! Learning jazz is almost like learning a related yet different language.

> A Classical Pianist Learns to Improvise

Final Tips

Constraints lead to creativity

A common piece of advice is to “play whatever you like.” And while this sounds freeing, many people are overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities of playing “anything.”

Instead, it may be helpful to give yourself constraints to work within. Set some rules: use a limited number of notes, set a rhythm, or use a short set chord progression (like the 2-5-1).

Research now suggests that rules, limits, and constraints are more conducive to creativity than total freedom.

Listen to the masters

Listen to top musicians and the language they use. Listen widely and deeply. Your own style will develop as a result.

Find a safe space

Improvising means taking risks, and ideally, you want to take risks in a nonjudgemental safe space.

If you can, practice improvisation in a place where you have privacy. If you have a digital piano, wear headphones. And if you live with other people, take advantage of times when everyone else is out of the house.

Need inspiration? Check out these practice space tips.

Sing along!

Expert improvisers like Jesús Molina sing along to what they’re improvising, and you’ll notice this among many musicians.

Singing or humming along to your playing forges a physical connection between your mind and your instrument. After all, thinking up notes is easy, but translating that into an instrument can be difficult. Singing—using the instrument we’re all born with, our voice—is the bridge between the brain and the keyboard.

You don’t need to be an amazing singer. Just try it!

Work off something you already know

If you’re stumped for ideas, use a song you know as a jumping-off point.

In this video, Lisa teaches a classically-trained pianist (me!) to improvise using chords from Bach’s “Prelude in C Major.”

We took the chords, then used Bach’s patterns to create new ones. Then we added a new chord! I was stunned by what a few minutes outside my comfort zone could do.

It doesn’t have to be complicated 🙂

Dizzying runs. Dreamy arpeggios. Complex chords. These all sound impressive but at the end of the day, complexity isn’t necessary for a successful improv performance.

In fact, worrying about being intricate can stifle your creativity. Too much ornamentation can also sound busy. If you’ve just started learning how to improvise on piano, try not to overthink. Keep it simple. And don’t forget to have fun!

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Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note. Learn more about Charmaine here.

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