A few years ago, I would see them and think, “They were born with so much talent.” I’d plunk away at the notes in front of me, not sure how to ever stray from what was written on the page.

Now, things are different. I can sit down at any piano and start playing whatever is in my head, whether it’s a “real” song or not. And, honestly, while it’s a great party trick that looks impressive, learning how to do it is pretty simple. The foundation for it all is chords, and once you understand them and know how to practice them, you’ll find your improv skills naturally getting better!

Basics of Chord Construction

Chords are notes played together. They follow patterns in how they are made and the order in which they are played. To build a basic chord, you can start with a home note and add two on top. Generally, these notes are added in the intervals of third and fifth.

In order to easily recognize chords and use them in patterns, we assign each one a number. First, we’ll draw a scale. These ones are major scales for simplicity’s sake, the same principles can be applied to minor scales.

Then, give each note on the scale a number and a chord; we use Roman numerals for the numbers. Each chord is major (M or big Roman numeral), minor (m or small Roman numeral), or diminished (° or dim).

The notes in the scales determine what types of chords they are. Please note that even though the notes and the keys change, the types of chords stay the same. In a major key, I and V will always be major, ii and vi will always be minor, etc.

There are a few basic patterns — called “chord progressions” — that most songs follow. The goal of most chord progressions is to end on I. The most basic is I-V-I.

Here are a few others that you can try:

I-IV-V-I

I-vi-IV-V-I

I-iii-IV-I

Each of these progressions has a different nuance and many songs can be broken down into these patterns.

When you change a song’s key, the notes you play will be different, but since the pattern you play is the same, it won’t be too difficult to switch!

These are the basics of chords, but how do we use them in our playing?

How to Practice Chords and Inversions

Practicing chords is the same as practicing anything else, use repetition and patience! Practice the chords above, playing them as is or as inversions, meaning to play the same notes in a different arrangement. Move back and forth between chords, going through the chord progressions until they feel comfortable.

Once you’re comfortable playing different chords, it’s time to try them out in a song! Using a website like Ultimate Guitar, find a song you like and begin practicing. Play the basic chord with your right hand and one note from the chord with your left as the bass. Then, switch and try to play the basic chord with your left and parts of the melody that you can play by ear with your right. You can try the same thing with lead sheets.

Once you feel comfortable switching between chords in different progressions, try to do it independently of a song. Pick several chords and move back and forth between them. You can break up the chords by playing one or two notes at a time, or you can play all the notes together. The more you do this, the more comfortable you will feel moving organically through chord progressions. You can also try playing in certain moods to see how that affects the music you make! Whatever you play, enjoy the process, the mistakes and the sense of achievement as you learn to improvise!

These are just a few of the basics of improvisation and understanding chords. If you have any questions or are interested in learning more, feel free to send me a message or schedule a Skype lesson! Do you have other suggestions for improving improvisational skills? Leave me a comment!