Classical Improvisation


On this page:

I. My stuff. Improvisation activities (forthcoming book, pedagogy, conference presentations, articles, etc).

II. Other peoples’ stuff. A bibliography of improvisation resources.


Part I. My Stuff.

A. New Book on Improvisation

My book has begun! Classical improvisation is a fascinating art, and seems to be gaining attention and interest among college-level music schools, private instructors, and independent learners. Our musicological colleagues have done some amazing break-through scholarship on this subject within the last few years (see bibliography below), but the area of improvisation pedagogy remains undeveloped. In short, if you want someone to show you, step by step, how to become a classical improviser, your search will be difficult. That is why I am writing this book. I hope to make it useful as an improvisation pedagogy method book, to be used either as a class text or for independent study.


Tentative Title: The Pianist’s Guide to Classical Improvisation

What It Is: Classical improvisation pedagogy method in 17th and 18th century styles.

Annotated Table of Contents:

I. The Figuration Prelude

Chapter I introduces the figuration prelude, which was the most common form of improvisation in the Baroque period. Readers learn the techniques required to improvise figuration preludes: openers, sequences, cadences, modulations, and endings. After the presentation of each concept, an exercise guides the reader through step-by-step practice in order to master each skill. By the end of the chapter the reader will be equipped to improvise authentic, stylistically accurate figuration preludes in the Baroque manner.

II. Variations

Variation form is the next step in the learning process.  In the 18th century variations also went under the names Chaconne, Passacaglia, Doubles, and Divisions on a Ground.  They’re all more or less the same thing:  riffs on a looping chord progression or bass line.


III. The Toccata

The toccata is a free form and may be rhythmically unmeasured in whole or in part. The style is most notable for its prominent use of idiomatic keyboard figurations. The chapter presents some simple harmonic progressions that may form the basis of a toccata, upon which the reader learns to superimpose figuration elaborating those harmonies. The reader assembles a collection of “toccata building blocks” by studying several works by Sarti, Alessandro Scarlatti, and J.S. Bach and appropriating and transforming their harmonic and rhetorical gestures for their own. As each building block is presented, the reader undertakes exercises for mastery. At the conclusion of the chapter the reader finds a series of guided challenges in which these building blocks must be assembled into coherent pieces of music.

IV.  Diminution

Modular diminutions are the small decorative notes that fill in the space between harmonically significant structural notes. Without diminutions, 18th century music sounds plain and uneventful. This chapter shows precisely how musicians of the past understood, studied, and deployed diminutions to bring plain musical structures to exhilarating life. Examples show how the reader may return to material from previous chapters and improvise on a higher level with diminutions. Exercises reinforce each concept.

V. The Aria

Drawing upon 17th and 18th century pieces in a slow lyrical style, this chapter will guide the reader through the process of learning to improvise arias. Before extemporizing a melody, the improviser must plan a short bipartite form, a basic harmonic progression, and a left-hand accompaniment pattern. The reader will learn to use an harmonic progression as a “skeleton” upon which lyrical melodic elaborations can be constructed.

VI.  The Baroque Dance Suite.  Drawing on advice from an 18th century treatise, the reader will learn to create spontaneous allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, and gigues.

VII.  Imitation

Many 18th century pieces begin with points of imitation — even pieces that are not explicitly fugue-ish.  This chapter will guide the reader through concepts and exercises with a goal of improvising points of imitation.


VIII. Partimenti

The work of Giorgio Sanguinetti has spurred avid interest in partimenti among improvising musicians. However, improvisers encountering partimenti for the first time are sometimes perplexed: what is one to do with these mysterious bass lines? How is the player supposed to know what to add? Without by any means claiming to be a comprehensive approach, this chapter will introduce the reader to some basic practices of creating music out of partimenti. The reader will be guided through several possible realizations of simple partimenti.

VIII. Schemata

This chapter is based on very recent research by musicologists (with special attention to the work of Robert Gjerdingen) into the thought patterns of 17th and 18th century improvisers. A key to understanding the fluency of great musicians of the past is by studying schemata, the short voice-leading structures that underly vast swaths of classical music. This chapter will present a catalog of schemata. Through exercises, the reader will prepare to deploy schemata in real time to improvise music in the Classical style.


X. Resources for Further Study

The final chapter will offer advice for further independent study of classical improvisation, along with a list of books, scholarly articles, websites, and recordings. The chapter will include suggestions for activities that promote improvisation, such as games, ways to include improvisation in formal concerts, and activities for groups of musicians who wish to gather to improvise music together.


B. Workshops and Conference Presentations

Improvisation Workshop from the 2016 conference of the California Association of Professional Music Teachers:

Full slide show as a pdf

Bach Prelude in C major

Handel Prelude HWV 467

Handel Preludes HWV 468-469

Minuet Templates

Duet Improv


Presentation from 2016 College Music Society Conference:

Transforming the Curriculum: A Pedagogy of Small Ensemble Improvisation for All Music Majors

Indiana University South Bend




In 1664 Christopher Simpson published an elaborate manual on a form of improv, common at the time, known as Divisions on a Ground. I am currently working on making a contemporary version that would allow most “classical” musicians to gain entry-level improv experience.

Divisions on a Ground: 

To see novice improvisers learning to play divisions, see “VIDEO DEMONSTRATION” in the next section.

Notes from Improvisation Workshop, Various Colleges, 2014-2015

Pathways to Improv.  A few introductory ideas for classical pianists.


It Ain’t Got That Swing:  Using Jazz Thinking to Teach Classical Improvisation

College Music Society Conference, Michigan State University, March 2015.

Introductory Notes:







Part II. Other Peoples’ Stuff

Annotated Improvisation Bibliography (under construction)

Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753). William J. Mitchell, trans. and ed. New York: Norton, 1949. The foundational text by CPE! The most helpful bit from his improv chapter is the section on the Rule of the Octave. Though difficult for the modern reader, Bach’s treatise sheds considerable light on the fact that improvisation and composition arose entirely from the bass line in this era.

Bonneau, Gilles Christophe. “Playing Upon a Ground: An Analysis of the Improvisation Technique of Christopher Simpson as Presented in The Division Viol (1665), with an Edited Transcription of Simpson’s Musical Examples.” D.M.A. Diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 2000. I have not read this yet. It’s here because I’ve used the Simpson treatise in pedagogy.

Callahan, Michael. Incorporating long-range planning into the pedagogy of Baroque-style keyboard improvisation. Music Performance Research.

_______. Teaching Baroque Counterpoint Through Improvisation – An Introductory Curriculum in Stylistic Fluency.

Chung, Brian. Improvisation at the Piano: A Systematic Approach for the Classically-Trained Pianist. Chung’s book is among the most widely-known among classical improvisation publications. He aims to give pianists some basic improvisational tools. I believe, however, that the book does not teach the thought processes of 17th and 18th century musicians. In other words, the reader learns some good techniques but does not develop satisfactorily as a thinking improviser. As a result, the improvisations one learns from his volume seem not to connect with any specific historical style. His treatment of topics such as non-harmonic tones and left hand accompaniments are credible, although the reader is given no larger compositional context in which to use the concepts.

Czerny, Carl. A Systematic Introduction to Improvisation on the Pianoforte: op. 200 (1829). Alice L. Mitchell, trans. and ed. New York: Longman, 1983. Czerny’s treatise reveals the improvisational practices of that time (short preludes before composed pieces, fantasies on themes, etc) through comment and example. Nevertheless, students of improvisation will find it difficult to learn how to do much except imitate Czerny’s examples as the treatise does not delve into the underlying knowledge required to create the improvisations. Students will be left thinking, “OK, I see what you did, but how did you know to do it?”

Erhardt, Martin. Upon a Ground – Improvisation on Ostinato Basses from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries. Translated by Milo Machover. A hands-on guide for use in class, in a group or alone. For all instruments. Including two play-along CDs in 415 and 440Hz.
Edition Walhall Nr. 905, Verlag Franz Biersack, Magdeburg 2013 ISMN: M-50070-905-3
Erhardt’s book is a guide to playing divisions on a ground (improvisations on a bass line). This is the best approach to “classical” improv for small ensembles. Works great for mixed groups including strings, winds, and even singers.

Gjerdingen, Robert. Music in the Galant Style. This is a book of musicology and theory that will help you improvise. Gjerdingen proposes that Galant composers thought in “schemata” — that is, two-voice outlines. I’ve found that, after studying the schemata, it is possible to play spontaneous music that is stylistically legit, has good voice leading, etc. Gjerdingen is definitely on to something. Caveat: Gjerdingen is a brilliant scholar, not a pedagogue of improvisation. He will explain the schemata in beautiful detail but not really tell you how to start from scratch and incorporate them into your improvisational life.

Hancock, Gerre. Improvising: How to Master the Art. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Great book for organists. Somewhat geared toward a modern modal harmonic language rather than “classical”. Not for beginners.

Humprhries, Carl. Improvisation Handbook.
This immense tome seems perplexing as it begins not with improvisation but rather with entry-level piano instruction: what the piano keys are, how to read music, what a quarter note is. His instruction in matters of piano technique is badly misguided and is based on ideas resoundingly discredited a century ago. When the topic of improvisation comes up at last, the instruction is largely along the same lines as Chung (above) and Stefanuk (below). In the course of the volume the author endeavors to teach the basics of “classical” improvisation along with “the jazz approach.” Even in a volume of this size, the plenitude of separate topics means that each is treated rather sparsely. Finally, I suspect that the image of Brad Mehldau on the cover is not authorized.

Overduin, Jan. Making Music: Improvisation for Organists. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Rabinovitch, Gilad, and Slominski, Johnandrew . Towards a Galant Pedagogy: Partimenti and Schemata as Tools in the Pedagogy of Eighteenth Century Music. This is the account of an experiment in teaching improv at Eastman, where Johnandrew is on the faculty. Johnandrew is a brilliant guy and fantastic improviser.

Ruiter-Feenstra, Pamela. Bach and the Art of Improvisation, Vol. 1. Another book for organists. I believe this may be a self-published book. The author is obviously a fount of musical knowledge. Much of the book is taken up with playing chorales, with frequent digressions into historical issues or, puzzlingly, the author’s philosophy of life. Vol. 2, which promises to address partimenti and fugue, is due out sometime soon.

Sanguinetti, Giorgio. The Art of Partimento. It seems that partimenti played a much bigger role in musical training that anyone thought. Sanguinetti explains what they are and (to the extent anyone now can) how they work. They can be the basis of improvisation study and function as bass lines, chord charts, and coded polyphonic guides all at once.

Stefanuk, Misha. Improvisation Step by Step. Stefanuk’s volume is similar in approach to Chung’s book: it mainly teaches small-scale topics such as melody ornamentation and left hand accompaniment. I believe its limitations are the same as those of Chung’s book.

Strobbe, Lieven. Tonal Tools: For Keyboard Players. This book has generated a certain amount of curiosity because it claims to take the schemata and make them accessible to beginners. Well, not quite: this immense, colorful volume does indeed illustrate many schemata (some taken directly from Gjerdingen, and others named by the author) but provides no guidance in putting them to practical use. The author explains in the forward that this is not a method book, but it seems to me that a method book is exactly what it ought to be. The author encourages the reader (assumed to be a teacher) to incorporate the schemata into their existing teaching. I don’t know very many teachers who are equipped to do this. If someone were to write a Volume II showing how to acquire a functional, real-time-deployable vocabulary of “tonal tools”, Strobbe’s work might become a significant force in the resurgence of classical improvisation.