About Improvising with Structure and Phrasing

When speaking, we use phrasing to emphasize ideas, capture our listener’s attention, and tell a story. The same holds true in music, and more specifically, in improvisation! Learn how to use phrasing to add structure, interest, and musicality to your improv.

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On today’s episode I want to talk about something that’s critical to creating an improvisation that’s interesting and satisfying for your listeners – and simply for yourself. And that’s structure and phrasing.

But first I want to talk a bit about what happens without structure and phrasing. On our last episode I finished up by saying something about how compositions and songs have structure whereas improvisation doesn’t. And hopefully you instinctively raised an eyebrow at that, because it sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

Music without structure would be pretty dull, right? Just an endless stream of notes all sounding roughly the same. So we know instinctively that improvised music should have structure to it. Yet many of the traditional ways of learning improvisation miss this.

We started out improv month talking a bit about how you can try to improvise by just sticking to fixed patterns or rules, or you can learn specific riffs and build up a “vocabulary” to reproduce and call that improvising. And even if you go a step better than that and use the kind of scale and chord ideas we talked about in our previous episode, without structure your improv will sound pretty bland. You’ll be filling in the time and choosing notes that sound okay – but it’s not going to capture the audience’s attention. It’s not going to take them on a journey, or move them, or be memorable.

So today I wanted to talk about just two things you can introduce to your improvisation that will transform it from that bland stream of notes into something much more like real music.

As part of Improv Month we’re releasing a whole series of new training modules in Musical U to help with improvising and two of them are dedicated to this topic. One on phrasing, and one on structure and form. There’s a ton packed into those modules to really teach this stuff fully, but for now I’m just going to be pulling out a couple of the simple ideas that you can start applying immediately.


I’m sometimes surprised when I talk to members of Musical U about phrasing because I find the level of familiarity with that idea varies hugely.

For me, I grew up singing and playing wind instruments, so my teachers were talking about phrasing from day one – as part of thinking about where to take a breath. And I think I was lucky to have some teachers who were good at encouraging me to think about how the performance would sound rather than just hitting the right notes, so I was always thinking about shaping phrases, especially in choirs, that was a really big deal.

But sometimes I talk to musicians who are quite accomplished but don’t really know what I mean when I talk about phrases. Or I talk to musicians who understand phrases when playing from sheet music, but it’s never occurred to them that this could be relevant to improvising too.

So a quick definition: A musical phrase is just a short section of a melody that has a beginning and end. We normally think of phrases as things that are a bar or two long, so we’re talking about maybe five seconds of music, that kind of scale. And we use that word because they are analogous to a spoken phrase. A spoken phrase is more than one word and generally belongs with other phrases in a sentence. Similarly, a musical phrase is more than one note, and generally belongs with one or more other phrases to form a section of the piece. You don’t want to labour that analogy too much, it’s not exact, but it is useful to think of a musical phrase as something that has its own identity as a little thing – but probably doesn’t quite stand alone, it’s going to need other phrases to really work.

Often a phrase will have a little pause before the next phrase begins, or there will be some shaping of the phrase with dynamics or expression to indicate that it has come to an end. A common rule of thumb given to singers especially is that the volume should increase and then decrease with each phrase – it should start a bit more quietly, increase in volume at its middle, and end a bit more quietly again. That varies depending on the music but it’s a good default to think about. Try listening out for this next time you’re listening to music, see if you can tell where a phrase starts and ends based on volume or the way the notes are played.

When it comes to improvisation, phrasing is the first level of structure we can give our improv. Instead of just choosing note after note until we’ve filled the time, we can think in terms of starting a phrase, building it up, and bringing it to an end.

And what’s cool is that this naturally leads us to start thinking about what happens from one phrase to another. It combines perfectly with that idea of “constraints and dimensions” that we’ve been talking about in recent episodes. Will your next phrase use the same constraints, or will you adjust them so that it can explore a new dimension? For example you could use a fixed rhythmic pattern for your first two phrases and then relax that constraint and explore a new rhythm with your third and fourth phrase. Or you could stick to a certain set of three notes for your first phrase and then suddenly introduce a fourth note in your second phrase.

One phrasing idea we dive into in our training module on this is “Call and Response”, where you have two phrases and the first one creates a kind of musical question that the second one then answers. It’s a really elegant way to draw your listener in and then provide a satisfying conclusion, and there are a variety of ways you can use it in your improvising.

Our training modules go on to talk about structure and form, some of the bigger-picture things you can introduce to your improvisation to make it musically effective. But for now I want to talk about the second idea you can apply immediately which is related to what I just said about creating a question and then answering it. There are a few ways you can do that in music, but one is to create tension, and then to release it, something you can deploy as call-and-response but actually has a much wider impact too.

Tension and Release

At any given moment in music there are going to be note choices for you as the improviser that sound comfortable and note choices that create tension. If you have a harmony accompaniment, like you’re playing chords in the left hand on keyboard or someone is strumming guitar along with you, then your improvised melody can create tension against the current chord. If there’s no accompaniment then you can still play with this idea because, as we talked about in our previous episode on “improvising with scales and chords”, you can imply harmony with the notes you choose, so that the listener is expecting notes that blend well with a certain chord, and then when you introduce a note that doesn’t blend it can create that tension.

Generally speaking, choosing notes from the current chord will sound comfortable, with the root note being the most relaxed. Choosing notes from outside the chord will create a bit of tension, and as a rule of thumb if they’re a whole step from a chord note – that’s also called a major second or a tone – then there will be some tension and if they’re a half step – also called a minor second or a semitone – away from a chord note then there will be stronger tension.

So for example if the current chord was C Major and you chose to play the note “C”, there’s no tension. That’s the root note of the chord, it’ll blend right in. But if you chose to play the note “B”, which is still in the C major scale, it’s still “in key” – but it’s a half step away from the chord’s root C, and that’s going to sound very dissonant and tense.

That’s a simple case in point, but the important thing to understand is that there is always this dimension to the music you improvise, how it creates tension or doesn’t. And, when we’re thinking about phrasing and structure, we can use that tension. We can choose to play notes that create tension in our phrase, and then move on to a note that releases the tension.

This is happening all the time in the music we listen to, in small ways and in big dramatic ways, and it’s a big part of what makes music sound interesting rather than bland. So it’s an essential tool to have in your toolkit as an improviser.

The way I described it there was quite music theory heavy, thinking about scales and chord notes and half steps and whole steps – and while that is one way to approach this, very popular with jazz players for example, you can also use it in a much more ear-guided way. At any given moment you’ll be able to instinctively imagine a note that would clash and create tension, so with some ear training you can just bring that imagined note out on your instrument, whether or not you’ve thought through the music theory relationships going on.

So those were two simple ideas about phrasing and structure that you can apply to your own improvisation, and there’s plenty more to explore on this topic, as we’ve been covering in our new modules inside Musical U.

The bottom line is that the audience knows what to expect in music. They know that there should be structure and phrasing, there should be a rise and fall, tension and release.

And the thing is, if you’ve been playing music for a while you know this too. If you were to sing something improvised you would probably instinctively sing in phrases and give it some structure. The trouble comes because how most people learn to improvise is so divorced from this musical instinct. They’re following rules, or remembering licks, or just trying hard not to sound bad. And so none of their natural ability to creating meaningful music comes out.

That’s why at Musical U we’re so fixated on helping people go beyond that – or to skip that frustrating approach in the first place. Our improv training focuses on developing your ear so that you can take your natural, creative musical imagination and translate it onto your instrument and out into the world.

So everything I’ve been talking about today. These aren’t really new things for you to learn from scratch. They’re really just reminders. Reminders of how you already know music should work, and reminders to bring that to your improvisation. If you’ve been improvising based on rules, patterns or memorisation then this is going to take some effort to try to introduce. Or you’re approaching improvisation in the way we teach in our new Improv Roadmap this will actually all come really naturally, and with very little extra practice you’ll be able to phrase and structure your improvised music to be interesting, moving and memorable for yourself and for your listeners. More on that Roadmap and how you can take advantage of it in our next episode.

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