Category Archives: Piano Improvisation

Piano Scales: The Lydian Mode

Piano-ScalesOne of the piano scales enjoyed by the pros as an alternative to the major scale as most of us know it will be acknowledged here. This scale really can add some “juice” while improvising over those major 7th chords. What’s great, too, is if you’re already familiar with the traditional major scale, you’ll find this one easy to get used to.

The scale being referred to here is the Lydian mode. Let’s investigate…

We’ll start by illustrating the traditional major scale. The C Major scale will be used here:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C
1   2  3  4   5  6   7  1

We have the foundation we need here. Look at the 4th degree of the scale. In this case, it is the F. Okay, play the C Major scale starting and ending on this note, as we have illustrated here:

F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F

Here we have the F Lydian scale (or mode). Again, this is one of those piano scales that you will use for added flavor when playing those major 7th chords. Let’s listen to this scale as you play it with your right hand while playing an Fmaj7 chord with your left.

You will notice that this scale varies from the traditional F Major scale in only one respect – that 4th of the scale is raised (the B is not flat in this case). So, an easy way to arrive at a Locrian scale is to play the traditional major scale that starts on the same root and simply raise the 4th degree a half step.

Play that scale again while playing the chord with your left hand. This time, pay particular attention to how that B natural sounds with the chord. How does it sound to you? However you describe this is right for you. Perhaps you might say that the raised 4th makes for a bit of a “mysterious” kind of effect.

An interesting characteristic of the Lydian mode is that there are no avoid notes. An “avoid” note is considered to be a tone in the scale that doesn’t really sound all that wonderful when held for a long duration while playing the chord. To confirm this for yourself, play the chord with your left hand and slowly play the traditional F Major scale (F  G  A  Bb  C  D  E  F). Notice that, when you arrive at the Bb, there is a certain dissonance that you may not consider all that pleasing to the ear. Next, play the Lydian mode (with that B natural) and listen to the difference!

Please consider exploring this very popular Lydian mode in other keys, too. You’ll find that it will very likely become one of your favorites!







Piano Improvisation Tips: Use Those “Other” Notes

Piano-Improvisation-TipsOne of the best piano improvisation tips that I ever had been exposed to was that of “going outside the chord.” I mean, when most of us first learn to improvise, we are encouraged to utilize the actual chord tones of the chord we are playing. By the way, this is good advice. That said, you can add even more dimension to your use of those chord tones when you consider using those “other” notes.

What is being referred to here? Okay, let’s take a look at a Gmin7 chord. In it’s basic root position, this chord is spelled as follows:

G  Bb  D  F
1    3    5  7

When playing a Gmin7 chord, it makes perfect sense that these chord tones are compatible for improvising. You can even come up with some pretty interesting improvisational ideas simply adhering to these chord tones.

If you have limited yourself to improvising in this fashion, then this will be one of the most eye-opening (and ear-opening) piano improvisation tips you’ve stumbled upon yet. It’s pretty easy to grasp, too. When you play the Gmin7 chord above, the notes once again are:

G  Bb  D  F

Let’s consider a chord/scale relationship here. This Gmin7 chord can be thought of as being related to a G Dorian scale (or mode), which looks like this:

G  A  Bb  C  D  E  F  G

Notice the chord tones of the Gmin7 highlighted in red above. Now, look at those other tones that are in between those chord tones. What are they? Yes, those “other” notes are A, C, and E. We could even included the top G again and have A, C, E, and G. Question: what chord do those tones spell?

Right! It’s an Amin7…

Now, go ahead and play a Gmin7 chord with your left hand. While doing this, play those Amin7 chord tones one at a time. Come up with some melodic ideas using those Amin7 chord tones. You’re sure to come up with some pretty interesting improvisational ideas!

Okay, now continue to do this and then have your improvisation resolve to the actual chord tones of Gmin7. One example might look like this: Piano-Improvisation-Tips Notice that the first four eighth notes are simply those “other” notes… yes, the chord tones from Amin7… and the following four eighth notes consist of only chord tones from Gmin7.

Suggestion: using this as a guideline, create some of your own improvisations over the Gmin7 chord. Feel free to add your own “twist” to the idea you see above. Mix up those chord tones. Your possibilities are endless!

Also, apply this improvisation concept to some other chords. You are just beginning to explore your creative, musical potential!







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Piano Scales: Minor Pentatonic & The Blues Scale

Piano-ScalesWhen it comes to piano scales for improvisation, the pentatonic is one you will want to have fun with in all keys. Now, we already acknowledged the major pentatonic scale. Let’s look at it here, specifically the C pentatonic scale:

C  D  E  G  A  C

As we have mentioned before, the major pentatonic scale consists of the 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 of the major scale. It cannot be overemphasized that learning this and other scales in the other keys will certainly be conducive to massive confidence.

Now that we have looked at the major pentatonic scale, we will use it as a foundation for playing the minor pentatonic scale. Just like the major scale has a relative minor scale, the minor pentatonic scale has a relative minor pentatonic scale.

If we begin the C major pentatonic scale on the A instead of the C and end it on an A, we have:

A  C  D  E  G  A

There we have it! Yes, this is the A minor pentatonic scale. It’s one of those piano scales you’ll want to master. So, the formula is as follows: begin any major pentatonic scale on the 6th degree and end it on the same degree an octave higher and the result is the relative pentatonic scale.

We also have already spent some time acknowledging the blues scale. Well, let’s use this minor pentatonic scale as a foundation for playing a blues scale beginning on the same note. Maybe you have already noticed that the only difference between the minor pentatonic and the blues scale is one note.

Again, here is the A minor pentatonic scale:

A  C  D  E  G  A

Now, let’s simply add an Eb (or a flat 5) to this and here is the result:

A  C  D  Eb  E  G  A

Yes, here we have the A blues scale!

So, there you have it! To arrive at any blues scale, simply play the minor pentatonic scale that begins on the same note and then add the b5, and you’ve got it!

It really helps when you can make associations like this when comparing scales. Let’s face it… we only have 12 different pitches. So, inevitably, there will be many similarities between the various scales that we will learn. Whenever the opportunity arises for us to associate one scale to another, this makes it easier for us to see a new scale for what it really is.

Again, you are highly encouraged to learn these scales in a number of different keys, as you confidence will absolutely soar as a result of doing so. As you become more and more technically in command of those keys, remember…






Piano Scales: The Dorian Mode

Piano-ScalesOf the many piano scales that you will want to familiarize yourself with is the Dorian mode. Let’s take a look at this special scale, which you will find yourself using frequently while improvising on piano.

First, to easily understand the construction of the Dorian mode, we will begin by taking a look at the major scale. Specifically, we will spell out the C Major scale here:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

What scale do we arrive at if we start this C Major scale on the second degree which, in this case, is D… and if we end the scale with D as well?

Here it is:

D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D

Wahlah! There we have the Dorian mode. Specifically, we have D Dorian mode.

The Dorian scale (or mode) is a minor scale. As we look at the 1, 3, 5, and 7 of this scale, we have:

D  F  A  C

Yes, the Dmin7 chord!

Play a Dmin7 chord with your left hand while playing the D Dorian scale with your right and listen closely. Do you hear how well this scale sounds when played with this chord?

This is one of those piano scales you will want to learn in the other keys, too. To do this, play any major scale that you are familiar with and then start that scale on the 2nd degree of that scale and play up to the same pitch name as we did above. So, as another example, if you start with the G Major scale:

G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G

and then start this scale on the A and end on A, we arrive at:

A  B  C  D  E  F#  G  A

Yes! That’s the A Dorian scale!

We mentioned that this scale is also referred to as a “mode” and we are going to get into further explanation of modes and we’ll also be looking at more of them. However, now that we know this scale sounds so good with the min7 chord, have some fun with playing some patterns. using it.

For example, play an Amin7 chord with your left hand and, with your right hand, play a pattern starting on the first note (A) like this:

A  B  C,  B  C  D,  C  D  E… and continue. Listen to this!

Okay, now go find a favorite standard song that you are learning to improvise on and, when you have a minor 7 chord, consider improvising an idea over that chord. In other words, use what you are learning. It is in the  where the “gold” exists!







Piano Improvisation Tips: Building A Vocabulary

Piano-Improvisation-TipsOne of the most valuable piano improvisation tips one can learn to implement is that of overusing a concept to the point of it becoming part of one’s nature. Perhaps we can more easily understand this if we equate this to the language that we speak, since music is a language in itself. When we learned to say a certain word like, “Wow!” we found many places within our conversations to implement it to the point of it becoming natural to do.

When learning a new improvisation idea, make it a habit to incorporate that idea into many areas of a song wherever possible. Yes, it might sound a bit monotonous to begin with but practicing and performing can be thought of as two separate activities. Incorporating a musical idea into a song over and over leads to confidence in using it on command. Do this with several improvisational ideas and your confidence with improvisation, in general, will definitely soar.

For example, let’s say that you are playing with a small improvisation pattern like this:


The notes in this particular pattern can be played with many chord situations. Look for areas in your song that might have a chord progression that goes something like this:

Cmaj7  Dmin7  /  Cmaj7  Dmin7  /


Cmaj7  Dmin7  /  Cmaj7  Dmin7  /


Amin7  Bdim7(b5)  /  Cmaj7  Dmin7  /

Even if you can find a succession of chords in which the pattern does not sound absolutely great to you, consider modifying the pattern a tiny bit so that it fits well, like changing a couple of notes in the pattern. Also, consider using a portion of the pattern like one measure of it or half a measure’s worth. One of the best piano improvisation tips you can learn to put into practice is adapting an idea to a given situation as we are mentioning here.

The more you apply yourself in this regard, the more equipped you will be when it comes to improvising. Use the new idea that you are learning in a number of different songs as well. Overusing an improvisation technique, strategy, or concept is a bit like swinging a bat with a weight on it several times. Then, when performance time comes, you feel “lighter” and more confident when it comes to actually implementing the ideas you have learned and repeatedly put to practice. In short your confidence when it comes to improvising increases tremendously.

Suggestion: Pick one idea today, like a piano fill that you would like to get better at using in your songs whenever you become inspired to. Find as many possible places that you can use it in a favorite song of yours. Yes, even modify it a bit to adapt to certain situations.

As you become more and more inspired to play creatively, remember…






12 Bar Blues Piano: The Mixolydian Scale

12-Bar-Blues-PianoAs a follow-up to our recent introduction to 12 bar blues piano, let’s take a look at another scale that you will want to be familiar with. We already mentioned one, which is the blues scale. The other scale that you will want to have a handle on when it comes to improvising over those dominant 7th chords is the Mixolydian scale.

Now, we acknowledged that when playing 12 bar blues piano that the key that you are in determines what blues scale you play. In other words, if you are playing the blues in the key of C, then the C blues scale will work well throughout the entire form. This means that the C blues scale will sound good over the C7, F7, and G7. That’s right. You don’t have to play the F blues scale for the F7 or the G blues scale for the G7. This is one of the interesting things about the blues scale. You see, each tone of the C blues scale has a different relationship with each of the other chords. For example, when you play the C, that tone is the 1 of the C7. However, when you play it over the the F7, it becomes the 5. Over the G7, it is the 4. Some of these relationships sound more consonant than others. Some sound dissonant. Since music really involves “tension and release,” this blues scale really serves us well! Explore the other tones of the C blues scale and see how they relate to each of these three chords. Of course, play and listen!

As mentioned above, another scale you will want to become confident playing is the Mixolydian scale. You’ll want to know this scale for each of the 7th chords you are playing, including the:

C Mixolydian scale C7

F Mixolydian scale for F7

G7 Mixolydian scale for G7

To arrive at any of these, simply play the major scale that corresponds to each root and then lower the 7th of the scale one half step. That gives you the Mixolydian scale for each of the 7th chords:

C7 = C  D  E  F  G  A  Bb  C

F7 = F  G  A  Bb  C  D  Eb  F

G7 = G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G

Using this scale in conjunction with that blues scale really adds lots of interest to your soloing. You are highly encouraged to explore your potential creating ideas using all four of these scales, and as you do so, remember…







Piano Improvisation Tips: Chord Tones & Scale Tones

Piano-Improvisation-TipsWhen it comes to playing cocktail piano, of the many piano improvisation tips I could offer, a favorite to promote that is most conducive to getting satisfying results is using chord tones. However, this approach can take on a more mature flair when your mind set is that of combining chord tones with thinking and playing in a linear fashion as well.

Let’s say that you are improvising over the chord changes to a standard song like Jerome Kern’s I’m Old Fashioned (lyrics by Johnny Mercer). The beginning in the key of F would look like this:

/  Fmaj7  Dmin7  /  Gmin7  C7  /

Here we have a I – VI – II – V chord progression. The chord tones for each of these chords are:

Fmaj7 = F  A  C  E

Dmin7 = D  F  A  C

Gmin7 = G  Bb  D  F

C7 = C  E  G  Bb

Consider using these chord tones in an arpeggiated fashion. Mix it up, changing the order from ascending to descending. In addition, start your improvised lines on a chord tone in the middle of the chord and work yourself outward, to the left… to the right… etc.

Perhaps you have already had some experience doing this. If so, you know the possibilities are unlimited, especially when you start using the inversions of these chords as well. One of the most important piano improvisation tips I ever learned was to not take this simple strategy for granted. Remember, it’s one thing to “know” a technique or strategy. It’s quite another to implement it.

In addition, take note that the four chords in this progression are diatonic chords in the key of F Major (Chord Progressions and How They Work #1 offers a good introduction to the diatonic system). This means that their chord tones are all members of the F Major scale. This being the case, the F Major scale serves as a good resource for improvising over these two measures. Play up and down the entire scale over this chord progression. If you play it in eighth notes, one time in either direction, you will fill up one measure. So, if you play in order (in eighth notes)…

F  G  A  Bb  C  D  E  F…

…you will have played through the scale over the chords Fmaj7 and Dmin7. Do this for the next measure as well. Now, while maintaining the duration of these chords, play half of the scale for half a measure and use only chord tones for the other half of one of the measures. Mix it up!

Naturally, you can begin the scale beginning on different tones. You will find that certain chords lend themselves to starting on different notes of the scale. There is a gold mine of discovery just within what was mentioned in that last sentence.

As you come up with your own ideas using this improvisation strategy, your confidence will soar since you will be the one creating. The sky’s the limit here, so have tons of fun with this! As you do so, remember…







Piano Chord Progressions: This One’s Easy And Fun

Piano-Chord-ProgressionsAs you have fun with different piano chord progressions, one that is easy and yet conducive to achieving some interesting sounds on those keys is shown here:


We are looking at the first three diatonic chords of a key. Let’s use the key of C Major for our purposes here. In this case, we will be playing:

Cmaj7 – Dmin7 – Emin7 – Dmin7 – Cmaj7

So, we are climbing up to that III chord and back down to the I chord in a stepwise fashion. Now, this is one of those piano chord progressions that you can have a lot of fun improvising with. Actually, if you’re sitting in the corner of a restaurant or club with the lights dim and want to compliment the ambience with something delicate and tasteful, you can really make this sound like something.

The chords in their basic root positions are:

Cmaj7 = C  E  G  B

Dmin7 = D  F A  C

Emin7 = E  G  B  D

However, let’s apply that 1-7-3-5 piano chord voicing to this progression. So, what we will be playing is as follows:

(The Root and 7 of each of these chords are played with the left hand and the 3 and 5 are played with the right hand. Begin with the C below middle C as the first root and simply climb up in steps)

C  B  – E  G  (Cmaj7)

D  C – F  A   (Dmin7)

E  D – E  G   (Emin7)

Begin by playing up and down as you play all the chord tones of each chord at the same time. Then play the 1 and 7 of each chord together while you play the corresponding 3 and 5 in a melodic fashion, playing each note separately. As you do this and become more and more comfortable with it, you’ll begin to see that you can really get a nice cocktail piano sound climbing up and down this progression.

Play through this progression delicately and, as you do so, create some simple improvised melodies with the 3 and 5 of each chord. You’ll become more creative with this. Also, consider playing everything up one octave. Then come back down to the original octave. Then play the voicings in a “rolled” fashion, playing from the bottom chord tone (Root) to the top (5th), too!

Naturally, this chord voicing structure works well in your tunes. However, just using it as you play through this progression really lends itself to complimenting a quiet setting. In addition, just by playing these three chords, you can explore your potential improvising with just these few notes. Experiment with your dynamics as well, using crescendos and decrescendos.

As you really set the scene with this simple yet great sounding combination of chords, remember…






Piano Improvisation Tips: Playing Patterns

Piano-Improvisation-TipsAmong the piano improvisation tips that you could be offered, one you’ll want to not overlook is that of playing patterns. The possibilities are endless. If you’ve never experimented with patterns, there’s no time like now to get started, so let’s do it!

Let’s say that you are playing a chord progression in the key of C Major. A most popular of these progression is:

Cmaj7  Amin7  Dmin7  G7

All four of these chords consist only of notes that are included in the C Major scale:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

Cmaj7:  C E G B

Amin7: A C E G

Dmin7: D F A C

G7: G B D F

Since this is true, if we simply create piano improvisation patterns that include notes from the C Major scale, what we play will be compatible to this chord progression. Let’s take a look at one such pattern:

C D E F   D E F G   E F G A   F G A B   G A B C   A B C D   B C D E   etc.

Notice that each set of notes in this pattern climbs starting on a subsequent note of the scale and climbs up four scale degrees. One possibility is to play these scale tones as eight notes. So, if each chord is played for four beats, then it would take two sets to complete a measure.

So, for Cmaj7, we could play the following as eight notes:

C D E F   D E F G

Then, as we play the Amin7, we continue the pattern starting on the third set (E F G A   F G A B)…

Now, even while adhering to this simple pattern, it becomes very interesting what kinds of variations we can come up by starting the pattern on different scale degrees. In other words, we can actually start this pattern on any scale tone of our choice while playing the Cmaj7 chord. This ultimately changes what scale tone we will be playing when we arrive at the Amin7 chord… and the Dmin7 chord… and the G7 chord.

Experiment with this pattern starting with different scale degrees on that first chord of the progression (Cmaj7) and notice how it sounds over the entire chord progression. Listen in particular when the chords change and what the starting note sounds like for each chord. So, if we start the pattern in eight notes on E, by the time we get to the Amin7 chord, our starting note will be G… and for Dmin7 it will be B… and for G7 it will be D.

Then start on a different note and continue exploring. Chances are good that you will like some better than others. That’s one of the great things about improvising! This is one of those piano improvisation tips that you can really investigate your potential with.

Try other patterns, too. Here is another:

C D E G   D E F A  E F G B etc.

Notice that we climb up three steps in the scale starting on the first note in the scale and then skip a tone. Then we begin on the second note of the scale and do the same thing, etc.

How about playing with each of the above patterns, starting on different notes of the scale. After you’ve had some fun with that, create some patterns of your own! The sky’s the limit!






Piano Improvisation Handbook

Piano-Improvisation-HandbookA piano improvisation handbook for beginners  that will serve as a starting point for those who feel as though they would like some encouragement in this area is available. This guidebook is brief and is accompanied by a short video that demonstrates the easy approach presented. If you have felt inspired to improvise on piano but wish you had an easy way to get your feet wet, you are likely to find this one quite eye-opening (and ear-opening).

The piano improvisation handbook/video combo is entitled The One Improvisation Secret You Must Know and has proved to be rather popular. This popularity is most likely due to its simplicity. This is not a book on improvisation that is meant to be read in an armchair. Actually, it will not take you long at all to read through it. It is not something that is meant to be studied intensely. Reading through this guidebook once along with exposing yourself to the piano video session once is likely to be enough for you to grasp the concepts and begin applying them immediately.

In college, one of my teachers (in harmony class) who was also a trumpet player, alerted me to a very simple approach to improvisation. I had been familiar with the concept but actually hearing it from one I considered to be an authority confirmed for me that this was a way of learning to improvise that was worth paying attention to. This improvising strategy is so simple that many are likely to discount the real power of it. Why is this improvisation technique so effective? Well, it’s practical and it promotes musicality.

By the way, this teacher informed the entire class that he had attributed his ability to improvise to taking this route. I heard this guy playing a gig at a local club just up the road from Berklee College of Music and, wow, could he ever play! Bebop was where it was at that night and he cooked on that trumpet!

Okay, here it is:

Learn to improvise by learning the melody of that tune you are playing like you never knew it before. Play it over and over again and, little by little, use small embellishments. Over time, it works like magic. You see, by improvising this way, you show respect for the melody and, as a result, your improvisations really take on a nice shape.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with learning scales and patterns and incorporating them into your solos. It is actually encouraged. But this improvisation method that we are referring to here does not require thinking along those lines. You can start as simple as approaching a melody note by a half step below. If the melody note is G, for example, and is played for two beats, you can just play the Gb for a half beat and follow with the G for the remaining beat and a half… or you can change the note values, of course. The possibilities are endless. The piano improvisation handbook mentioned above can help you tremendously with this method of improvising.

As you implement this improvisation technique more and more, you’ll find yourself becoming more creative around those melody notes. The result? Your improvisations will have coherence and you will be developing your own personal style!