"Gaining Inspiration" or "Whither the Lost Chord?"
by John Morris FRCO, GRSM, ARCM

Contrary to many assumptions, you do not need to be a genius in order to be able to improvise. There is no denying that some show a greater aptitude than others, but this is true of most activities. Like everything else, it will improve with practice.

Improvisation can be fun!

We tend to think of improvisation as a necessary evil for filling in those unexpected gaps in a service, but do we ever improvise purely for pleasure in the privacy of an empty church or at home? Try it sometime and as you improve, keep a tape recorder handy, or a manuscript book, just in case you strike gold! Keep them handy anyway; it's amazing what can come to you whilst defrosting the cat, oiling the toaster, etc.

Extra-musical stimulation

The French are the masters of this art - I wonder whether the expressive French character can supply any clues? Think of impressionism; Debussy's association with images in his Preludes, Claire de lune, Golliwog's Cakewalk, etc.

Don't try to be too clever

Your improvisation does not need to be startlingly original. Everyday ideas in a coherent form will do. A well made speech is a good example of structured improvisation. Generally a speech which is read word for word has too many subordinate clauses and comes across in a stilted fashion, whereas the speaker who just uses notes for the outline and supplies the actual words spontaneously can be much more convincing. In fact, if you think about it, we spend most of our lives improvising in one way or another.


Start with singing and creating melodies only. If nothing comes to mind think of some evocative words or phrases - Pastorale, Ode to Joy, Sicilienne, Praise the Lord!, Lugubrious, Toccata, Let us give thanks, Sorrowful, I will lift up mine eyes, etc.


Find a favourite poem and sing a line of it: this is, in fact, included in the Associated Board's Grade 7 and Grade 8 Practical Musicianship Tests. Or maybe you can think of a melodic shape by using a picture for inspiration, (Grade 8).


Perhaps you can think of a rhythm on its own and then clothe it with a melody. "I must pay the gas bill" will supply ideas for a rhythm, as will most everyday phrases, pleasant or otherwise!

One thing at a time

Notice that so far we have not mentioned playing. It is too difficult at first to successfully attempt both stages, i.e. creating a melody and cope with the mechanics of playing it. However, if you are prepared to work on them separately for a while, combining them will become easy.

Answering Phrases

Singing an answering phrase is a good way of encouraging logical musical thought. The phrase should balance the given phrase, maybe include an idea or two from it, and have a 'finished' feel to it, (i.e. not leaving the music 'up in the air'). It should not be like the three old ladies, (q.v.)

Group Work

Singing answering phrases in small groups is good as it can stimulate the imagination and produce constructive criticism. The Practical Musicianship tests for Grades 1 and 2 include examples of two bar answering phrases and four bar phrases in Grade 3. These do not require any set harmonic scheme.

Putting it together

So, how do we link up the brain with the keyboard? Start with a very well-known melody, one that you could sing or whistle in your sleep. Then try playing it by ear. Choose an easy key like C major.

Make sure that you are completely familiar with the key. Firstly, play the scale with the proper fingering and then try it in thirds and sixths. If all is well try root position triads:

G  A  B   then first
  C  D  E   Then second
  E  F  G
E  F  G G  A  B C  D  E
C  D  E... E  F  G... G  A  B...

When you are satisfied that you can play your melody accurately, (for this purpose, fingering is not vitally important), try it in another key. Don't worry if accuracy takes a while - treat it as something of a 'hit-and-miss' experience! Just use one finger if you like.

A peek into the future

What has been said so far should enable you to make a good start with improvisation. We have not mentioned much about harmony as that really has to wait until fluency is gained with the melodic side of things. If you find that things are happening quickly, have a look at AB Grade 4 Practical Musicianship, (tonic and dominant harmonies), and Grade 5 (subdominant and supertonic harmonies).

Chord symbols / harmony

Grade 5 also has the opportunity of improvising an accompaniment using chord symbols. This is an alternative but equally useful way of gaining fluency with chords. Plenty of popular music uses chord symbols and some recent hymn bonks also make use of them. There is a very useful section in David Sanger's "Play the Organ" Volume 2, pp 202-207, in which he mentions, amongst other things, taking a chord sequence and improvising a melody above it, an excellent idea once you feel fluent with melodies. As you progress, you will find a wide harmonic vocabulary an invaluable asset in imaginative improvisation.

Using what is already there

This is a collection of ways of 'manipulating' a tune so that it will spin things out if the unexpected happens. If the collection took too long, you could continue playing from the midway point of the tune. So, if it is "Glorious things...", I would pick it up from "Fading is the worldling's pleasure" and play the second half again, maybe playing the last line, (None but Zion's...), twice, with a good rallentando to wind up the proceedings. I have found that the most common reason for 'running out of hymn' during the Offertory is because a hymn with four-line verses has been chosen. Four or five verses of an eight-line tune should be long enough for most ordinary occasions.

Adagio e dolce

If the tune is to be played gently, the following works well. Start playing from the middle on strings, slower than normal, and then play the whole tune through, melody soloed on quiet oboe / clarinet / flute (4'?). Very often, the last phrase can be repeated. It is a useful exercise to arrange hymn tunes so that the melody can be soloed in the right hand. All it really involves is the left hand taking over the alto part.


Playing the melody as a right hand solo can be effective at the end of a Funeral where the last hymn has been e.g. "Abide with me", "The day thou gavest" , "Amazing Grace", etc. With the latter, I have found it effective to do as outlined in the previous section but to extend the final phrase so:

Was blind but now...   (clarinet solo)
Was blind but now...   (strings)
Was blind but now I see   (clarinet solo)

A variation is to play the gentle tune all the way through with strings and right hand solo then pick it up from half way through, strings only, and play the final phrase solo, (maybe with extended cadence).

Echoing part of a phrase

Brackets = quiet stops only, otherwise right hand solo...

The angel Gabriel from heaven came (from heaven came)
His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame (his eyes as flame)
"All hail" said he "thou lowly maiden Ma-ry" (-den Ma-ry)
Most highly favoured lady,
Glo-, (Glo-), Glo-ria

Extending cadences

It is often useful to be able to extend the final cadence to pad things out: e.g. quadruple 3rd and 2nd chords from the end...

Come, with all thine angels come,
Bid us sing thy Har - - - - vest - - - - Home
2-3-4 2-3-4


Obviously, the same thing won't work in every case - that's the whole point of improvisation! But these hints will cover quite a range of situations. I am sure that once you start experimenting and extending your musical imagination, you will find many more ways of doing things as you practice, develop and improve your very useful, newly acquired skill. Enjoy it and nurture it!

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