Music Improvisation Techniques

In Music Improvisation by jan_mfp

These improvising techniques are excerpts from the MLP training booklet, Return to Child. To purchase a copy of the booklet, see the MfP Store page.


While warming up, give yourself permission to do anything that gets you physically warmed up and artistically engaged. Before starting, notice whether you’d prefer to start in a gentle way or in a physically active and dynamic way, and fashion your warmup accordingly. Be aware that there are three areas to attend to: your body, your voice, and your instrument. It is advisable to warm up your body and voice before playing an instrument. If you pay attention to your physical and emotional needs during warmup, a natural order will evolve.

At some point, make sure to explore the most dynamic, loud, and excited expression possible with your voice and body, as well as your instrument. Many “give up” before getting to this energetic level, so keep going until you’ve really experienced this extreme. It will give momentum to the rest of your improvising experience.


Just as a long journey starts with one step, an improvised solo starts with what we call One Quality Sound. One Quality Sound is one note or tone–just one!–that authentically expresses how your feel at the moment you sing or play it.

To sing One Quality Sound, breathe in, and on the out breath, sing one sound that completely expresses what you are feeling right now. It can be a long sound or a short one, a high one, or a low one. However long or short, hold your One Quality Sound for just one out breath, actively listening to it as you are singing it.

It’s important to hold the pitch steady (as does, for example, the telephone dial tone) with your One Quality Sound, rather than letting it slide around (like a siren). Focus on the simplicity of expressing who you are at that given moment.

Your willingness to express your true inner feeling in One Quality Sound is the single most important building block for creating powerful and satisfying improvisations, so stay with the process of singing One Quality Sound until you know you have authentically expressed yourself.



  • In this structure, the first person improvises a brief solo (remember, in this context, a solo is just two or more “Quality Sounds” played one after another), holding out the last note, which is called a drone.
  • A drone is simply a sustained note that doesn’t change pitch. Its volume or intensity may change, but the pitch stays constant. If you need to breathe while holding a drone, just breathe whenever needed and resume droning. As the first singer/player ends his solo and begins to drone, he nods to his duet partner, who then sing or plays his own improvised melody, with the first person’s drone serving as accompaniment. When the second singer/player concludes his solo, he holds out the last note with his partner’s drone. The improvisation can end at this point by getting louder and signaling a stopping point together, or it can continue by repeating the structure.
  • Here are some suggestions for first-time duetters.
    • Keep your melodies short, and when you are ready to hand over the role of soloist to your partner, give a clear signal by making eye contact and nodding.
    • When you are the soloist, realize that you are in a musical relationship with the person holding the drone, and continue to listen and relate to their note.
    • When you are holding the drone for your partner, support the mood, volume level, and intensity of the soloist by your volume level and commitment to the drone note.


  • You can vary the solo/drone structure by replacing the drone with a short repeated rhythmic/melodic pattern known as an ostinato (or more simply, a groove). Many people find this easier than using the solo/drone structure. Keep your ostinato pattern extremely simple at first. Two or three notes repeated over and over in an easy-to-hear rhythmic pattern works well. This form is especially well suited for plucked string instrucments and percussion instruments (including piano).
  • In this structure, it is usually easier for one person to start with an ostinato and then signal to their partner when ready for a solo to be added on top.