Cultivating Creativity Through Developing Improvisation Skills

Dr Leon de Bruin

The ability to improvise is one of the most creative, enriching and fun things we can do as musicians. Whether we are beginning, developing or accomplished players, being able to create, think critically and express ourselves through spontaneous composition is one of the most valued (and coolest) musical skills we can have.

First, let’s dispel some myths.

  • Anyone can improvise; and, like most things, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
  • Yes, improvisations are created “in the moment”; but those musical reflexes are developed through habits of idea making and adaptation.
  • Complexity is in the ear of the performer. Being able to play through lots of chords is a skill, but it starts with one chord, one scale, a selection of notes. Imagination is the driver of your creativity, not the materials.
  • “Hard” and “easy” are subjective mindsets. Remember that we all learned to walk and talk through playful experimentation, risk-taking and re-trying. So enjoy the trial and error, experimentation and wonder of improvising – and get better on your instrument at the same time. It’s what The Greats did!

We can use the general musical terms we learn in high school as the basis to approaching effective improvisational development. You can use all these ideas in idiomatic styles of music, as well as free improvisation.


Diversify beyond the scale by incorporating experimentation with regard to intervals – large leaps or small steps, with movement tending both up and down. Creativity likes constraint, so focus on select groupings of notes (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 – the major pentatonic scale). Experiment with moving ideas in ascending and descending “shapes”.

Take the time to figure out what you like the sound and feel of. This is the start of your editing process.


Rhythm is used to cultivate a stable sense of time and feel, but is also a more fluid aspect of our creative impulses. Significant jazz styles are dependent on steady rhythmic phrasing and an implied pulse. Freer forms allow us to experiment with our ideas without a consistent pulse – it can be fixed or elastic.

As we create a sonic landscape, we can:

  • mix up short ideas with longer ideas
  • play-stop-play-stop
  • develop simple melodic ideas through repetition and variation.


All jazz styles have a vocabulary of sorts – jazz and improvisation over the past 100 years have an aural history created by their musicians. The more significant artists defined ways in which we may converse within a creative group, whether it’s ragtime, bebop or free jazz.

Everything you play matters. Whether you are learning a solo or experimenting for three minutes each day in a different key, it’s all developing your ideas, attributing value to them and cultivating your personal voice.

Just as we learn to stand, then walk, then run, an improviser’s learning trajectory is imitation, assimilation and innovation. Developing ideas is nourished through listening to others – that aural history is on the net, just a mouse-click away! Find players you want to sound like – they may be on the net or in your school band. Find a quick 10 minutes to be creative with someone. Pick a tune, or a key, and go!

Develop, evaluate and edit your ideas by recording them. Make notes in a journal of how your ideas and listening are developing and evolving. And, above all else, remember that you can improve your improvising anytime, anywhere, just by committing to the musical moment you create for yourself.

Put the instrument in your hands, think of an idea, and just do it!

Dr Leon de Bruin, Lecturer in Music, University of Melbourne

Dr Leon de Bruin is Lecturer in Music at the University of Melbourne, Conservatorium of Music, where he teaches preservice instrumental music teachers. An educator in secondary schools for over 20 years, he is a staunch advocate for quality music education in Australia. He is the ASME National President and an executive member of the ISME Instrumental and Vocal Teaching Forum. His recent book publications span music education, cognition, and creativity, with a recent title: Musical Ecologies and Instrumental Music Ensembles forthcoming through Routledge.