Singing After Laryngitis | Hamilton Clip | Improvising as Songwriting

You can use improvisation to help you write song melodies.
Originally published: October 13, 2020
Updated: December 4, 2020

“Improvising is essentially composing on the fly.” One of my jazz instructors shared that quote with me years ago, when I was studying jazz piano at college. It was the first time I realized that writing a melody and improvising are one and the same thing; they’re just done at different speeds. A beginner jazz soloist may write out their solos at first. It means the solo is not truly improvised, but it is not to be frowned upon, because if you can invent a melody in advance, you’ll eventually be able to invent one “on the fly.” It is still an original invention coming from that person.

The great thing is, the principle works in reverse too. If you can improvise a melody on the fly, you can probably turn that impromptu string of notes into a polished melody for a song. This means that absent-mindedly humming whatever comes into your head – without judgement – could eventually lead to a brilliant and catchy song. In fact, this way of coming up with melodies is probably much more productive than sitting down in front of a piano or piece of manuscript paper and trying to come up with a polished melody directly. 

Songwriter Laura Clapp teaches an exercise where you find a recording of a simple chord progression that repeats. This might be created by a band-mate, a friend, or yourself, if you play an instrument. You play the chord progression repeatedly while improvising a melody with your voice over top without any words. After spending some time getting comfortable improvising over the progression, you may find that eventually you start to really like the sound of a particular melody line and you start repeating it to refine it. This is how many a melody has been created. The exercise is also an effective way to develop your skill at improvising. Win-win!

Happy improvising! – Kathy

For exercises and audio tracks to help you improvise and compose melodies over chord progressions, upgrade to premium and take Laura Clapp’s lesson Improvising Melodies Over Chord Progressions.

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