Every musician’s gotta learn this stuff sometime, and learning to improvise is much easier if you get it out of the way first. https://www.musictheory.net is full of free exercises and theory lessons that might help. You need practical understanding of music theory to improvise. Completing this section will help you acquire the basic skills you need to get started.
- Level 1: Know the chromatic scale fluently over the full range of your instrument in 16th notes (100bpm). This is every single note in order of pitch including both the black and white keys on the piano. Be able to play all the way up and down without stopping, and know the letter name of each note.
- Level 2: Internalize all 12 major scales and all 12 harmonic minor scales. Memorize all 12 key signatures. (E.g. What are the three sharps in F# minor?) Be able to smoothly transition between major and minor scales over the following cycles:
The circle of 4ths (C, F, Bb, etc.)
Up in half steps (C, C#, D, etc.)
Down in whole steps from Bb (Bb, Ab, Gb, etc.)
Down in whole steps from F (F, Eb, Db, etc.)
- Level 3: Internalize the following chord qualities. Chords are notated as a Root (the letter name of the bottom note) followed by an abbreviation of the quality (Maj7 for major 7). Transition smoothly between these chords over the same cycles you used for the scales. The intervals are listed as numbers of 1/2 steps from bottom to top. Here are the common chord qualities:
Major triads: 4,3 (Ex. C, C-E-G)
Minor triads: 3,4 (Ex. Cmin, C-Eb-G)
Diminished triads: 3,3 (Cdim, C-E-Gb)
Augmented triads: 4,4 (Caug, C-E-G#)
Major 7 Chords: 4,3,4 (Ex. CMaj7,C-E-G-B)
Dominant 7 Chords: 4,3,3 (Ex. C7, C-E-G-Bb)
Minor 7 Chords: 3,4,3 (Ex. Cmin7, C-Eb-G-Bb)
Minor 7, flat 5 Chords: 3,3,4 (Ex. Cmin7(b5), C-Eb-Gb-Bb)
Diminished 7 Chords: 3,3,3 (Ex. Cdim7, C-Eb-Gb-A)
- Level 4: Be able to play all 7 modes of each of the 12 major scales (one octave). You can start and end scales on notes other than the first note. The resulting scales are called modes, and each one has a distinct character. Internalize the names of each mode: We’ll be using this vocabulary a lot. If you start a C major scale on:
C you have the Ionian mode (Very balanced, the most familiar sound in western music)
D: Dorian (light and wispy, this mode is used over most minor chords in jazz)
E: Phrygian (Minor, but much heavier. Plus Bull Fighter chords!)
F: Lydian (Really bright, often used in film scores)
G: Mixolydian (a common sound in the blues)
A: Aeolian (also known as Natural Minor)
B: Locrian (dark and unstable, sounds a bit minor…)
Nomenclature: The second mode of the C scale is called ‘D Dorian’. ‘C Dorian’ refers to the second mode of a Bb scale.
The names of the modes are Greek words that became attached to music during through Gregorian chant. The modes and their usage have changed somewhat since that time.
- Level 5: Internalize the 7 Diatonic Chords in each key. If piece of music is diatonic to the key of F, that means it only uses notes from the F major scale. Find a scale’s diatonic chords by playing the first (a.k.a. the root), third, fifth, and seventh note of each mode. Diatonic chords are written as Roman numerals so they are easily distinguishable. Play diatonic chords up each major scale in the left hand, while improvising a short melody in the right. Use the modes as a basis for your improvisation. Here are the diatonic chords in the key of C:
C-E-G-B, This is a CMaj7 chord. It implies the Ionian mode.
D-F-A-C, Dmin7. Implies Dorian.
E-G-B-D, Emin7. Implies Phrygian.
F-A-C-E, FMaj7. Implies Lydian.
G-B-D-F, G7. Implies Mixolydian.
A-C-E-G, Amin7. Implies Aeolian.
B-D-F-A, Bmin7(b5). Implies Locrian.
- Extra Skills: Want to play really well? Here are a few ideas that will help.
Play your triads and 7th chords (see chord qualities) over Minor 3rd cycles (C-Eb-Gb-A), Major 3rd cycles (C-E-G#), and tritone cycles (C-F#, C#-G, etc). Start on different notes so you cover all 12 keys in each practice session.
Learn the 7 modes and diatonic chords of each harmonic minor scale. This will help you improvise over minor chord progressions.
Be able to name the notes of any scale or chord without your instrument. Writing them on the staff can be a little tedious, but its the quickest way for most people to memorize this stuff.