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How to Improvise on Piano: A Beginner’s Guide

Jesús Molina, Pianote  /  Improvisation / May 6

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Do you want to learn how to improvise on the 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. If you want a more hands-on approach, join Pianote as a Member to access our improvisation course taught by Jesús Molina, one of the world’s best piano improvisers!

  1. Basic Improvisation Tools
  2. Beginner-Friendly Exercises
  3. Take It to the Next Level
  4. Final Tips

🎹 Learn From One of the Top Pianists in the World ✨

We’re proud to announce Jesús as our Pianote Coach. His exclusive course on Improvisation and Musical Freedom will change the way you think about the piano.

He’s broken down the lessons into different levels of difficulty. So it doesn’t matter where you are in your piano journey — you CAN learn how to improvise.

In this course you’ll get:

  • 9 video lessons covering improvisation in jazz, bossa nova, classical, and more
  • His secret 6-month practice plan with assignments for every lesson
  • Access to EVERYTHING inside Pianote, including hundreds of detailed song tutorials
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1. 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. Some concepts to familiarize yourself with include:

Here are some free resources if you need a refresher:

Having a chord poster or a reference book near your piano can also help.

🎹 IMPROVISATION — A CLASSICAL PIANIST’S PERSPECTIVE: Classical pianists are notorious non-improvisers. Case in point—the author of this article (me!). I can happily play Chopin if there is sheet music, but ask me to improvise? I’ll be stumped in silence! Then, one day, Lisa showed me how all the notes of the scale in the key you’re in are fair game. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but this blew my mind! I had assumed that only notes that belonged to the chord you’re in will sound good (or that jazz pianists all had perfect pitch). The other thing I learned? You have to embrace getting stuff wrong. Sometimes, advanced classical pianists are reluctant to improvise because they don’t want to feel like a beginner again. It’s humbling, but everyone starts somewhere!

The Number System

While understanding the number system is not required for improvisation, it can certainly help you make sense of chord theory and to transpose songs.

2. How to Improvise on Piano: Beginner-Friendly Exercises

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

Lesson: Create Emotional Piano Music (Just 3 Notes)

Yup, you just need three notes!

In this exercise, you’ll play a simple chord progression with your left hand using only fifths. Then, you’ll play a gorgeous three-note figure with your right hand.

Once you’re comfortable with that figure, experiment with altering the rhythm, playing up or down an octave, and mixing up the notes.

The Chord Progression (Left Hand)

Am – F – G – Em

The 3 Notes (Right Hand)

B – C – G

Now try 4 notes!

Lesson: Create Emotion With 4 Notes

Play the four notes in a pattern that delights you with your right hand. And with your left, play the Am-C-G-F (vi-I-V-IV) progression as a series of octaves or fifths. Or experiment with arpeggios.

For some darker energy, try playing octaves lower down the bass. Then repeat them to add tension.

You can add ideas from the three-note exercise too!

The Chord Progression (Left Hand)

Am – C – G – F

The 3 Notes (Right Hand)

G – D – E – C

Improvise with just 1 chord

Lesson: Sound Amazing on the Piano in 5 Minutes

Just one chord can spark an infinite number of possibilities. In this exercise, you’ll play Csus2 with your right hand. And then…play whatever you want with your left!

Since we’re in C Major, any note from the scale of C Major will work with the Csus2. In other words, all the white keys are fair game.

Left Hand

any of the white keys!

Csus2 Chord (Right Hand)

C-D-G

Learn some riffs and fills

Lesson: Riffs and Fills Made Easy or take the full course: Piano Riffs & Fills

Pianists often improvise riffs and fills between the chords they’re playing. When you break these riffs and fills down, they’re often quite simple. But adding a riff or fill—even a simple one—really takes a performance to the next level.

So take a pop song—preferably one you know well that’s in a key you’re comfortable with—and see what fills you can create between the chords.

Improv Cheats 🤫

  • 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!

3. 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

Lesson: “I’m Afraid of Solo-ing!” (Easy Piano Improvisation Exercises)

In jazz performances, each instrument often gets its own improvised solo. Here are three steps to make yours:

  1. Know your key signature and practice playing the scale of that key over a chord progression.
  2. Explore different patterns, working with a small handful of notes at a time.
  3. Don’t forget to play with rhythm! Rhythm makes a HUGE difference.

Experiment with different styles and moods

Lesson: You’ve Never Heard “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” Like This Before!

Once you can play a basic version of a simple song (like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”), try embellishing it with elements from different styles of music. For example, in rock style piano, try a rock shuffle pattern in your left hand.

If you’re interested in Bossa nova piano, experiment with fifth patterns and seventh and ninth chords.

And as we’ve mentioned before, small things like slips, trills, approach tones, and even glissandos down the white or black keys can make a big difference.

🎹 WANT MORE EXERCISES? Check out the Improvisation category of this website for lots and lots of FREE lessons.

4. 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.

Find a safe space 🛋️

Upright piano with open front next to armchair with fan on top.

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!


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.

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