One of the greatest thrills a pianist can have is to be able to sit at the piano and just play; without music and without thought. Unfortunately many pianists never learn to do this. They are closely tied to their music because that’s not only what’s comfortable for them that’s the way they learned.
However, what if I were to tell you that in as little as ten piano lessons you could be playing your favorite melodies without music and also be able to improvise as well? Would that be something you’d be interested in? Take a moment and picture you sitting at the piano at a party and just playing. How does it feel? Great, that’s what you need to feel if you’re going to do what it takes to learn properly.
Let’s get started. In our first piano lesson, you must understand how music is structured in order to be able to improvise. Most western music is based on what we call tertian harmony, which simply means chord structures that are based on intervals of three. For example a C major chord is made up of the notes C E and G. Each of these notes is spaced a third away from the next.
So, assuming that all chords are based on tertian harmony, then next thing you need to know is where do the notes we choose for our chords come from? Well, they come directly out of a major or minor scale. For example; let’s take a C major scale which is C D E F G A B and back to C. When we build chords on top of each of the notes of a major scale we would build them in intervals of 3 and the quality of the chord (major or minor) is determined by the scale.
That means just like our C major chord which is C E and G (notes chosen from the major scale), our F major chord would be F A and C, where A and C are notes from the C major scale. We wouldn’t use for example Ab or C# because they do not come from the C major scale. Likewise for a G major chord, G B and D, the note B and D come also from the C major scale.
The number of the chord is important as well. Since our C major chord is built on the first note of the scale we call this one (1). The F major chord is four (4) because it is built on the 4th note of the C major scale. And, the G major chord is five (5) because it’s the 5th note of the C major scale.
Coincidentally, the chords C, F and G or 1, 4 and 5 are what most classical and popular music is based upon. The vast majority of songs use the chord progression 4, 5 to 1 which is the most common chord progression there is.
Understanding the 4, 5, 1 chord progression is essential to understating how to improvise. Knowing that 4 is followed usually by 5 and then resolving to 1 is of high importance if you wish to be able to play your favorite music without using sheet music.
In our next piano lesson we’ll discuss how to substitute richer chords for the 4, 5, 1 progression and how to choose our melody notes so as to create and improvisational theme.