How I teach improvisation in my music theory coursework

Reflecting on ongoing attempts to get students improvising

AUG 19, 2023

This post is about teaching improvisation in my classes and particularly in my third-semester music theory class, but the spoiler is that as far as I’m concerned, I don’t. As I tell my students, I teach ear training, and improvisation is how they convince me of what they’re hearing. (I’ll invoke here Garrett Michaelson’s formulation in the context of an article on improvisation in music theory coursework: “Improvisation is music theory and ear training with immediacy.”)

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that I think are foundational to being a good improvisor that I do not work on whatsoever with students in my theory classes (though we talk about them):

  • Playing idiomatically on one’s instrument
  • Soloing according to conventions of a particular style or genre
  • Developing a personal style, touch, and voice on ones’ instrument
  • Interaction with other soloists (as distinct from interacting with accompanists)
  • Advanced harmonic, melodic, sequencing, or rhythmic techniques
  • Arc + trajectory of ideas over longer stretches of soloing
  • Soloing over any piece of more complicated music (non-standard time signatures, harmonic complexity beyond applied chords and perhaps one modulation to a closely related key, rhythmic hits)
  • Studying and transcribing the work of individual soloists

Here’s what we work on as a class:

  • Hearing and feeling a groove
  • Developing a simple motive over the course of a solo
  • Interacting with accompanists (rhythmically, dynamically, but not really harmonically/melodically)
  • Hearing a harmonic progression at least well enough to avoid discordant notes and ideally well enough to incorporate guide tones and non-chord tones knowledgeably
  • Basic scale vocabulary (diatonic modes; blues scales; bebop scales; pentatonic; octatonic/diminished)
  • Quotation

Setting up the activity

I describe the performance goal to my students by sketching out the following scenario:

You’re home on summer break and a buddy from high school calls you.

“Hey, Jimothy! I’ve been recording my nu-folk hip hop-core deathgrass album in my basement, and I was wondering if you, my incredibly impressive music major friend, could come over and lay down some contrabassoon on a few tracks. No, I don’t have any parts in mind. No, I don’t know what the chords are, but I can show you on the guitar. Oh, you don’t play the guitar? You can’t figure it out by ear? Too bad, man…I was gonna pay you $15 for two 12-hour days of tracking, too.”

What amazes me when I first introduce this hammy scenario is that my students say that this seems incredibly implausible. Surely you’d be given sheet music when hired for a recording session? Surely you’d be given a few weeks to compose a part before going into the studio? In fact, I can’t think of a single musician who hasn’t been in some situation like the above — informally asked to sit in on a bluegrass jam session, or to write parts on the fly in a recording studio setting, or to improvise an accompaniment to a Christmas carol.

Let’s set aside familiar and vital questions that surround improvisation in the classroom—questions surrounding equity in pedagogy and stylistic pluralism and the hegemony of a particular epistemology of music as properly fixed in notation. It is, quite simply, fucking embarrassing to be known to your pals as a music major who has played violin for 15 years who is nevertheless unable to play along to “Jingle Bells” at a booze-soaked holiday party. Now, is that particular performance practice the aesthetically fulfilling end goal we want on the horizon for our students? No, of course not. But facility with that kind of music making enhances a performer’s skill elsewhere, and reinforces the habits of thought that I want to inculcate in my music theory courses: for starters, “Why is this music proceeding the way it is?” and “What else could have happened?”

I’ll also note that I am certain there are lots of students on my campus who can play, for example, a rippin’ mandolin solo in their bluegrass band. Generally, and lamentably, I rarely even meet them, let alone have them in class. They do not tend to be music majors, and anecdotal conversations with music faculty at other liberal arts colleges suggests this is a trend. The reasons for this are manifold and certainly not specific to my school, and maybe I’ll try to write about them in a later post. I would like these students to take more music courses, but honestly I don’t think they’re wrong in judging that what we offer might only be of selective utility to them. We as teachers have to make the change first.

A quick narrowing of this essay’s scope

First, I am trained as a jazz musician, and it is the music I hold nearest to my heart, and so I think improvisation is vital in all things. We talk about improvisation at length in every single one of my classes, from music theory to music technology to seminars on cognition or modernism et cetera. So if this particular exercise leaves off bigger-picture theoretic considerations, please rest assured that they’re reading George Lewis and Vijay Iyer and Tracy McMullen and Derek Bailey and Pauline Oliveros etc etc in other classes.

Second, improvisation is at least a small part of most theory/musicianship coursework at American colleges and conservatories, from fundamentals through to post-tonal theory. But these improvisations are generally experienced as exercises or as games, and they’re targeted toward very clearly delineated skills. Obviously this helps one improvise in a real setting, but what I’ve been trying to do lately in my upper level course is to create a setting in class where we can work on larger chunks of music. That’s the activity I want to write about here, and the one I want to encourage others to teach.

Institutional context

At Wheaton, the liberal arts college where I teach, our music theory curriculum requires three semesters of music theory of our majors. The first two semesters look fairly standard in terms of conceptual material: writing diatonic harmonies in a tonally syntactic fashion, tonal voice-leading procedures, tonicization and modulation, mode mixture. I also teach the blues, and sometimes cover 20th + 21st century modal music (always via pop songs: Uptight (Everything’s Alright), Scarborough Fair, Mad World, and maybe my personal favorite, Gin and Juice). Each class is 80 minutes long and we spend at least 20 minutes of each meeting on aural and musicianship skills, in addition to a required 2-hour musicianship course that meets once a week.

But then students get to our third semester and we essentially hit pause. The goal of our third semester course is to create a “musicianship sandbox” where very little new conceptual material is introduced. Instead, students have lots of space to dive deeper into material from the previous two semesters, via creative work, improvisation, and collaboration. Exactly what my colleagues and I do when we teach this course (we alternate every year) depends on our particular interests and what we see as especially needed by the particular students in our course, who we generally know from previous coursework. We require this class of music majors; non-majors can take it but rarely do, because I’m told it has a reputation for being intimidating. I’m not quite sure how to shake off that reputation. It might be deserved.

I really like our theory + musicianship curriculum, and think this design could work well elsewhere. I don’t know how to scale it up — I had a luxuriously small class of ten students this semester in my course. Every institution has different needs, although I want to hasten to add that conservatories presume student fluency with the skills I work on with my liberal arts students at their peril. (I wrote in another post about the skills I think every graduating music student should have.)

Just by way of further context: We also offer four other upper-level music theory electives on a rotating basis: jazz theory, 20th + 21st century music (the course is titled “musical modernisms and postmodernisms” and has a historical as well as music theoretical/analytic component), a course called “Analytic Approaches to Western Music” which is a survey of recent work in the field of music theory, and a course called “Tonality at the Fringes” which analyzes tonal or tonal-adjacent music from the last 120 years. Syllabi for most of my courses are on my website.

Course Activities Prior to Improvisation Unit

I structure my course around a series of deliverables, broken down into composition tasks, musicianship tasks, and meta-theoretic tasks. The exact tasks change a bit from year to year. I won’t discuss the meta-theoretic work here. (It involved reading and reflecting on scholarship that is generally critical of the goals, methods, and/or objects of music theory, or which seeks to expand the epistemology of Western music theory.)

Our composition deliverables were:
  1. Composition for monophonic instrument in rounded binary form, following rules of common practice tonal voice leading and clearly expressing an underlying harmonic progression
  2. Arrangement of a song chosen by, and transcribed by, the student

Our musicianship deliverables were:
  1. Clapping a samba rhythm and a partido alto rhythm along to a recording. The recordings we mainly used were Wilson da Neves - O Samba é Meu Dom, and Nelson Cavaquinho, Candeia, Guilherme de Brito e Elton Medeiros - Nao vem (Assim nao dá)
  2. Improvising a canon at the fifth above, following the procedures Peter Schubert has spelled out. I had them do this both with their voice and on their instruments and we did not arrive at a cadence.
  3. Performing the first page of Louis Andriessen’s “Worker’s Union” to a metronome set at 70 bpm. I let them do this on any instrument, including percussion, and they didn’t have to worry about the pitch contour component of the piece unless they wanted.
  4. Figuring out a chord progression by ear and soloing over it convincingly, in real time.

I made it clear in class that the model composition and the improvisation tasks were connected. I am not a big proponent of model composition. But this particular assignment is very helpful for getting students thinking about improvisation along the lines I wanted. My aim was for students to think about the difference between a melody that followed a harmonic progression and a melody that expressed a harmonic progression, and the possible gradations in between those two poles. The composition was their way of showing me that they understood the distinction and could control it. Requiring them to use strict voice-leading (basically: all chordal 7ths resolving down at change of harmony, and non-chord tones behaving/resolving as expected) was so that I could better assess how they were understanding the harmony in their compositions. Requiring rounded binary was to give some kind of simple and reasonably familiar common structure that they’d all adhere to, which made comparing their pieces easier.

Improvisation over skeletal songs: first steps

I wrote about 30 riff-oriented dinky little songs for the improvisation project, and dumped them all in the same Ableton Live session. This meant:
  • I could change the key as needed, because one of the concessions I made was that they got to pick the key of the song
  • I could loop the songs indefinitely
  • I could bounce recordings of the songs to our course page easily
  • I wouldn’t have to be playing along while students were soloing, so I could better attend to what they were playing

Some of the songs had totally stock chord progressions: I-vi-IV-V; a 12-bar blues; I-V-vi-IV; etc. A lot of times I’d throw in a B section with an applied chord, so that you’d have, for example, a song with an AABA form where A was I-V-vi-IV and the B was V7/ii—ii—V—I or some such.

Some of the songs had chord progressions from real songs; for example, Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” (||: I - bVII - I - bVII - IV :||: V - vi - I - IV :|| V - bVII - IV - I ||) or REM’s “Losing My Religion” (||: i - v - i - v - i - v - IV - bVII :||).

Here’s a notated example of one of the simpler patterns I had students solo over:

The first thing we attend to is the groove, and rhythmic improvisation. Students clap the half note, and then the quarter note, and we discuss which one they might internalize and what the difference in feel will be. Then they clap the rhythm itself, and lastly they clap other patterns that feel congruent to them.

Next we get the bass line, which I ask them to just figure out and play on their instrument — hit wrong notes if they need, do whatever they need to do in 2-3 minutes to get the bass line. I’d want them to hear the A section as a plagal pedal rather than a change of harmony to IV on beats 2 and 4.

Then we talk about harmony. In the above example, I’d want them to assign a mode first (dorian, which I present as “feels like natural minor but has a major IV”), and then name the bass notes they learned by ear as scale degrees (1, 5; 1, b7, 5, 4) and then decide if all the harmonies are root position (they are except for the plagal pedal in the A section), and lastly assign roman numeral functions to them (i or i-IV-i, v; i, bVII, v, IV).

This is a slowed-down and scaffolded version of the kinds of thinking that I expect most Western improvisers do when they’re first hearing a tune: meter; groove; modality/tonality; harmonic progression.

Improvisation over skeletal songs: Soloing as communicating

One of the best scholarly books I’ve read recently is Leslie Tilley’s “Making It Up Together: The Art of Collective Improvisation in Balinese Music and Beyond.” It’s a book about improvisation, but also about creativity, and how we do well to think of both as social and collaborative and empathetic activities. Tilley begins the book by talking about “exploratory creativity” and “transformational creativity,” both of which are scaffolded by enculturated norms including style, decorum, and so forth. “A Balinese composer who reworks a gendér wayang piece…is practicing exploratory creativity, as is that same composer creating a brand new composition in a known style, or a performer taking advantage of the “space” in that composition to make alterations to it in the course of performance” (Tilley 2019, 23). Transformational creativity is what you’d expect from the name and context: alteration of conventions rather than explorations within them.

I tell my music theory students that what we’re doing is “exploratory,” in part because of what information we’re trying to communicate. They’re pretending that they’re in a setting where they are expected to convey information about harmony and about form, even while they’re also crafting a coherent expressive utterance.

Here are two different things I heard played early on over this piece which indicate some of the friction this activity produces. (Again, these are a range of students in a liberal arts college, mostly sophomores, of varying instrumental ability.)

First, I’ll ask someone else in the class to either transcribe or play to the best of their ability what the student played. Then I’ll correct as needed. Lastly, we’ll all talk about what worked or didn’t. Here, some of the deflating aspects include that it’s sparse and lacks motivic development or rhythmic interest, that some of the notes are discordant (E natural instead of E flat, B natural instead of B flat, metrically salient C on the downbeat of measure 3 when the harmony changed). So already, and without introducing something like the “guide tone” method of improvisation, we’re talking as a group about signaling changes in the harmony via soloing. Cool.

Here’s what another student did over the second section (also I’ll note that neither of them were actually flutists):

Good — they came out of the gate with a rhythmic motif that made sense against the accompaniment, and they had the mode locked in. Less good: they expected to play, without incident, a scalar step down in the melody; but hit a discordant A natural above a G minor chord and then got knocked off kilter. Second time through they just repeated the same opening hoping that force of repetition might save them; class agreed that it did not, and we talked about how two times is generally not enough repetition to create the sense that we’re overriding the harmony to riff on an idea.

Another one:

Ok, this one’s on Coach, for spending two previous semesters exasperatedly repeating the axiom “raise the leading tone in minor.” This was a student with a classical background, and they also thought they were being slick by hearing “C dorian” and assuming they could get away soloing in G minor. When I asked if that’s what they’d been thinking, the class definitely had an “a ha!” moment about how musical concepts like key signatures that might seem equivalent can lead them astray. That F# can work here and a B natural could really have worked, as a chromatic passing tone effecting a tonal connotation in a modal solo. But instead we all agreed that it sounds like a lick that was copy + pasted into the wrong piece/decade/universe.

Great, so now we’re all feeling hopeless and morose, because almost no one in the class has facility on their instrument as an improviser but they do have the ability to hear that something sucked and they really have the ability to feel badly having something they did reified as notation and picked apart by their classmates. Glibness aside, this is a peril that instructors have to navigate: I am not writing, here, about how to teach improvisation, and the aim is not to get the class playing killin’ solos over what are, again, super banal little riffs I came up with in my office six minutes before class. I navigate this by building up some trust and rapport in the previous half of the semester; by making supportive jokes; by soloing myself sometimes on banjo, an instrument I do not know how to play; by keeping the pace of the exercise pretty brisk; and by not spending more time than we can stand doing this.

The last thing we’ll generally do is I’ll give them some prompts, like “play the root on the downbeat of each measure but then do whatever you want.” Sometimes I’ll even scaffold that with notation although the goal is not to do that. But for example:

Then we’ll do the same but “play the 3rd of the harmony on the 2nd and 4th measures” or “Play an accented upper neighbor that resolves down by step on the downbeat of each measure” (so start measure 1 playing a D and then next note is a C). Tiny little motives and concepts that they’d have encountered ad nauseam in previous semesters.


All of the above comprises perhaps the first two 80-minute class meetings of an 8- or 10-class unit. By the end of the unit, we’re also talking about blues scales and bebop scales, going around the room in a circle soloing over the form X number of times, parroting ideas from each other, parroting ideas from recordings, and so on. Again: this is not so that my students will become expert blues soloists, though I hope it gives them the confidence and the joy to pursue that on their own. As I said at the beginning, this is an ear-training exercise first and foremost, and that’s how I pitch it to the class. When we’re wrapping up, I give them some general resources for studying improvisation—some Youtube channels, jazz harmony textbooks, books on improvisation—but I’m not sure how many go further with working on improvising on their instrument. But they come away having dealt pretty seriously with a lot of the questions that I consider foundational to studying music-making (which music theory at its best would both enable/scaffold and theorize): breaking some music into smaller chunks (“sounds like the blues” or “sounds like lydian” or “begins with 3 in the bass”); thinking about goal-direction and listener expectations (including the “listeners” who are performing with you); playing with and against rhythm and meter; breath; drama; iteration. The list goes on endlessly but the point is that these are habits of thinking that have little to do with how well one actually solos and in many ways are not music-specific but rather deal with creativity, non-semantic communication, expression, and sociality.

If you’re doing similar activities in classes for students who aren’t studying improvisation at the conservatory level, I’d be very keen to hear what you do. If you aren’t, and the logistics of your class allow it, I can’t recommend units like this enough. They are enormously fun to teach, and teaching this material has helped me refine how I teach a lot of other material in my music theory and music technology courses.