Historic Improvisation Resources

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.

Classical (or historic) 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 an improviser in historic styles, your search will be difficult. That is why I wrote 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.  The writing stage is now complete, and the text is in the hands of Oxford University Press for editing and production.

Title: The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation

What It Is: Improvisation pedagogy method in 18th century styles.

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Annotated Table of Contents:

I.  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.  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.  Lyricism

Drawing upon 18th century pieces in a slow lyrical style, this chapter will guide the reader through the process of learning to improvise such works. Before extemporizing a melody, the improviser must plan a short 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.   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.  Partimento

Recent research has illuminated the central role of partimenti in musicianship training.   This chapter will lay out a practical method by which the reader may “decode” and interpret these pedagogical bass lines.  Without by any means claiming to be a comprehensive approach, this chapter will introduce the reader to some basic principles.

IX. 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.  Beginning with smaller structures such as minuets, the reader will cultivate a personal library of useful, real-time schemata in a wide variety of idiomatic textures.  As fluency grows, the reader will expand from minuets to larger structures.

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

Please note:  This section doesn’t get updated much.  Most of the new stuff goes up on www.patreon.com/ImprovPlanet.

European Piano Teachers’ Association.  Riga, Latvia, 2018.

Video of presentations, masterclass, and concert.

Various files from the California Association of Professional Music Teachers conference, California State University Long Beach, 2016.

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:




Big shout-out to The Nikhil Hogan show.  Nikhil is a cool guy who does an interview podcast of wide-ranging musical interests.  He has sought out scholars and performers of historic improvisation in particular.  I have enjoyed listening to some of my friends and colleagues being interviewed!

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. http://mpr-online.net/Issues/Callahan%20FINAL%20120311.pdf

_______. Teaching Baroque Counterpoint Through Improvisation – An Introductory Curriculum in Stylistic Fluency. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0ZI8di-pEDvdDBDTllObGtNZmM/view

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 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.

Gooley, Dana.  Fantasies of Improvisation: Free Playing in Nineteenth-Century Music.  Oxford, 2018.  This is the first comprehensive history of 19th C improv.  (It’s history, not instruction; you won’t learn how to improvise anything.)  Gooley describes key events and persons in the improv world of the 1800’s.  To me his most interesting idea is that as actual improv declined, a body of popular ideas about improv, which he calls the “improvisation imaginary”, grew in its place.  Makes sense, actually:  since fewer people were trained in it, improv was perceived as mysterious, and found an important symbolic place in Romantic literature.  Two other fun discoveries:  1.  Carl Loewe improvised songs with piano accompaniment on poems provided by the audience.  2.  A very popular form of public music-making was to “improvise a storm” on piano or organ.  Maybe I should try that.  I recommend this book highly.

Gjerdingen, Robert. Music in the Galant Style. This is a book of musicology and theory that will (or rather, could) 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.  Still, this is required reading.

Gross, Austin.  The Improvisation of Figuration Preludes and the Enduring Value of Bach Family Pedagogy.  Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy.  https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0ZI8di-pEDvSnAxQlI3S0xCc0E/view

Hamilton, Kenneth.  After the Golden Age:  Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance.  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Hamilton takes a long look at the tradition of the solo recital.  He argues that what we now think of as the formal, proper, traditional recital is a recent (and arbitrary) thing.  Along the way he runs into some cheering facts about improvisation.  A fun read, especially for those who love the history of performing traditions.

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!

Humphries, 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 was 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. UPDATE:  Volume 2 is out.

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.  Required reading.

Schwenkries, Markus (ed). Compendium Improvisation.  Fantasieren nach historischen Quellen des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts.  (Improvising according to historical sources of the 17th and 18th centuries.)  This hefty tome, published just this year by the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, consists of chapters by a group of authors associated with the Basel school.  Each author addresses a different topic.  Available in German only.  (My German is, shall we say, etwas langsam.)  The instruction is practical and very much in accordance with the way old time musicians thought.

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.