Music Foundations Tutorial: Improvisation – Let Your Ears Do The Talking

In this Music Foundations Tutorial, Dubspot Blog contributor Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO makes the case musical improvisation, letting go of control and embracing immediate, ‘in the moment’ musical composition.

Dubpsot Improvisation

Let’s Jam

As creators of electronic music, we tend to spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer, surrounded by an array of controllers. We may envision a club full of people digging our newest track, but we are usually alone with headphones on and eyes aimed at the screen. Suddenly, there is a knock on your door. A friend has arrived with guitar in hand. He listens to your track and says “Let’s jam!” Now What? Are you ready for the challenge? If you spend all your time making tracks, tweaking sounds, and creating beats, making music up on the fly may fall outside of your comfort zone.

Why Jam?

Today I’m going to discuss some basic techniques of “jamming” and how to develop your improvisation skills. Why is it important to be able to improvise? Improvising helps us discover and liberate the sounds that are in our heads. By improvising and playing we are able to perceive what is hidden inside. We are free to create without self-judgment, letting the ideas flow out of ourselves.

A fair definition of improvisation is: “to perform (a poem, play, piece of music, etc.), composing as one goes along.”  What is noteworthy is that it happens in real time without editing, continuing on until the new composition (creation) is complete. We should be able to sing and tap out improvisations as they happen. If you hear a series of notes in your head (la-la-la—-re-re) and play them at the same time on your keyboard, if you tap (boom – chuck–ba-boom-boom-chuka-chuck) and you sing it in your head at the same time. That’s improvising! As my first drum teacher said “Say what you play, play what you say”.

Let your fingers do the talking

Let your fingers do the talking

Ear / Hand Practice Techniques

I’m going to introduce a number of techniques/exercises to get your ears up to speed with your hands, to help you develop the ability to automatically transfer the sounds in your ears to the motion in your hands. We start with some very basic concepts and you may surprised how quickly your ears and hands will develop.

Note: In each of these 5 short videos, I will give an example of what to do. I recommend that you make up your own rhythms and choose your own notes / pitches. Start with the first video and work on that one until you feel comfortable, and then move to the next. There is no rush with these exercises. Making the connection between your ears (which you will sing) and your hands (tapping or piano) is the purpose of these exercises. Speed will come later.

  • Rhythmic improvisation. This is the most basic form of improvising and is in fact to ingrained in our bodies that we don’t realize that we are doing it. Try this, think up a rhythm, say it out loud, and then repeat the rhythm while tapping it with one hand. Now do the same thing but alternate (left-right-left-right) your hands while doing it.

So far so good? If you made up a rhythm on the spot and tapped it at the same time, then you were improvising. Rhythmic improvisation is so basic that we “feel” it. Unfortunately because of this I feel we never delve too deep and explore all the possibilities of rhythms. In my article on polyrhythms, I give some examples of how to play polyrhythms.

  • Envision in your head, 2 drum sounds, for practical sakes, lets say a bass drum and snare drum, a low and high sound. Sing a rhythm with these to tones. Now as before, sing and tap, assigning one hand to the bass drum and the other to the snare drum. Now a third time, sing the same rhythm and switch the hand assigned to each drum.

Was it difficult to switch hands? We are now getting outside the comfort zone.

  • Now try adding a third sound (again for simplicity, lets say it’s a closed hi hat). Say / sing the rhythm, making sure that you are saying 3 defined sounds. Sing it a few times until you are familiar with it. Try tapping the rhythm on a table and define 3 different places on the table, one for each sound. Now sing and tap using both hands, having the left hand playing the low and middle sound and the right hand playing the high sound. Got it? Good, now try having the left hand just playing the low sound and the right hand takes middle and high sounds. If this get confusing, slow down and try again.

Now it is time to start improvising melodies. People are sometimes amazed when I sit down at a keyboard and play a melody I just heard. There is no magic to it. It is just a learned skill. Like most things in life, it seems a complete mystery until you understand it, and then it just becomes part of your skill set.

  • Sit down at the keyboard, and sing a note out loud. Sing it again and listen very carefully. Now find the note on the piano, keep singing the note while pecking away at the keyboard until you find it. Now sing the note and play it at the same time. Next sing a rhythm with 1 note and at the same time, play the note on the keyboard.
  • Next step, 2 notes. Sing 2 notes alternating and find the 2 notes on the keyboard. Now make up a melody with a rhythm and sing and play. Once you are comfortable with this, try adding a rhythm backing track on your computer. Continue improvising.
  • Next try adding a third note, but make this note the octave above the lower of the 2 notes you are currently using. You can continue to make this more and more challenging by adding more notes to choose between when improvising. Remember though, the most important thing is that what you sing is what you play, play what you sing and hear. Even if you can’t sing in tune, it is what’s in your head that is important. I think my own vocal prowess can attest to the lack of importance of having a “good” voice.

The connected relationship between your body and your instrument is what we are advancing, and the deeper the connection, the easier it is too pull all those sounds out of your head for everyone to hear. This is what improvisation is. So when someone wants to jam with you, try to play from your ears and not your hands. You don’t need to sing out loud, but listen inside and play what you hear.

  • Chord tones: Let’s consider making an improvisation on a single 4-note chord. I will use Cmin7 as an example. The notes are C, Eb, G, Bb. Play these notes on a keyboard, one at a time and then sing while playing. Once familiar, try playing the notes in a random order and sing the same notes simultaneously. Make the rhythm simple and focus on listening to the notes in your head at the same time as you play the note. Now add some rhythm, put on a groove and improvise you own melody over the chord.

Voila, you can improvise. Your ears are connected to your instrument and your possibilities for creation have just opened up. Keep practicing these exercises, when you hear a melody, try and figure it out on a keyboard or other instrument, crazy drum rhythms will become your friend.

Listen to the patterns

Listen to the patterns Dave

One ending side note, my son recently received “Mini Portable Simon” as a birthday present, a throwback to the 80’s. It has turned into an excellent tool to help with ear training. The game involves remembering ever increasing patterns based on color and sound. Because there is a pitch associated with each color, you can play the game with your eyes closed, by listening to the pattern and playing it back. Having four pitches makes it just complicated enough but still playable with your eyes closed. It’s the best 15 bucks you can spend to help develop your ears. I currently hold the family record at 22.

Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO has worked professionally as a musician (vibraphone, percussion, laptop), producer, remixer and arranger for 25 years, playing such diverse genres as, jazz, rock, drum’n’bass, salsa, techno, country, Hindustani, gospel, baroque and orchestral music. He has recorded on over 150 CDs, composed music for eight films, toured internationally, and lived on three continents. Michael was the house studio mallet percussionist for Sony Records (Japan) in the 90s, was a founding member of the award winning “Jazz Mafia” as well as working as a producer/remixer for Six Degrees Records in San Francisco, arranged and produced contemporary multimedia productions of the 16th-century composer Henry Purcell in Paris and is now writing a musical based on the life of Dionysus and dividing his time between Montreal and New York.


The best producers, DJs, and musicians in the world strive to be well-rounded. So should you. In Dubspot’s Music Foundations Program, you’ll explore three major aspects of music: rhythmic theory, melodic theory, and critical listening. Unravel electronic music’s origins, build your chops, learn musical language and theory, and make and play music the way you want. What’s Included:

  • Music Foundations Level 1: Pads & Rhythmic Theory
  • Music Foundations Level 2: Keys & Melodic Theory
  • Music Foundations Level 3: Electronic Music Appreciation

“This course exceeded my expectations. I went through everything I needed to have a solid knowledge of basic music theory.” - Jonathan Crespo, Miami “MF has been an amazing experience! I didn’t realize I was going to learn so much about electronic music history, something my generation missed.” - Yianno Koumi, United Kingdom Start dates and information about payment plans can be found here. Or if you have questions, please call 877.DUBSPOT or send us a message.