Improvising Music
and Conversation

 ( for the young and old ) 


This page is a proposal, written by Craig Rusbult (PhD in Education) during life on a road less traveled.


What? — By working cooperatively with others, I want to help people of all ages – but especially seniors and K-12 students, the old and young – increase their enjoying of music.     { and also conversation }

Why? — Emotionally, good music is wonderful.  It's enjoyable & fascinating, can be beautiful & dramatic, familiar & mysterious, relaxing & exciting, inspiring us mentally, emotionally, and physically.  Music is one of the best things in life.     {my lifelong experiences with music}

Why? — Scientifically, we have discovered that most people get major benefits (mental, emotional, physical) when they listen to music, and also when they make music.    {research studies about the benefits of music}


How? — One of the best ways to enjoy music is by just listening.  And when you're in the mood, play along with it, using your voice or an instrument.  This “playing by ear” can occur with others (when you "play along") or by yourself.  Or you can “read sheet music” to make music, by yourself or with others.

How? — In addition to these ways of enjoying music – when you listen, or play (with sheet music, or by ear) music that another person has pre-composed – you can enjoy making your own music by self-composing it, by improvising.  The basic principle of improvising is to learn by doing, when you try new musical ideas (you do musical experiments) to produce new musical experiences, so you can listen-and-learn.

How? — In one way to improvise, you begin with a pre-composed melody;  then you modify this melody by changing some of its notes, or adding notes or deleting some, by making the note-spacings closer together or further apart, or harmonizing with the original melody, or changing its rhythm.  Doing this can be fun with singing – especially when you sing without words (how can this help you be more creative?) – because singing is an efficient connection between thinking and doing, with easy intuitive-and-automatic translating of your musical ideas (imagined by you) into musical sounds (made by you).  Another way is to play a series of notes, without a plan, just to see what happens, to listen and learn.  And you can use harmony to make melodies;  it's the main focus of this page, because I think it will help many people increase their enjoying of music.    {more about melodic variations}

How? — In another way to improvise, you use harmony to make melodies.  You can do this with your intuitive singing.  And when you play an external musical instrument with skill, it helps you improvise with skill, because your instrumental skill gives you (as with your internal musical instrument of singing) an easy-intuitive-automatic translating of musical ideas into musical sounds.  Of all the musical instruments, I think playing an electronic keyboard is the easiest way to quickly develop an improving level of skill that lets you enjoy improvisation by using harmony to make music.  No experience is needed.  Just begin pressing keys and making music!colored notes - black & white, plus red, blue, green   A keyboard lets you easily do musical experiments – with a creative attitude of relax-and-do, listen and learnby “playing games with music,” guided by colors.  With simple explorations, you can make your own music when you play only the black notes, or white notes, or red notes, or red-and-blue-and-green notes (by alternating times of only-red with only-blue & only-green).  And after awhile when instead of "only" (in these self-limiting games) you begin “mixing the colors” you'll have more freedom to experiment and listen/learn.  Soon we'll look more closely at the process of using keyboard-colors to make music, after a paragraph that is optional (so you can skip ahead if you want) about a process of actualizing ideas by converting them into realities:


What?  This page begins by describing my goal of "working cooperatively with others, to help people of all ages – but especially seniors [in living facilities & community centers] and K-12 students [in classrooms, schools, districts], the old and young – increase their enjoying of music" by improving their improvising of music, in many ways but especially by using two instruments, their voice and an electronic keyboard.

How?  I'm not sure, because I'm still thinking about options for the process, trying to decide the best timings for “what to do first, and second,...” during a process of contacting...  other educators (e.g. activity directors in senior living centers, teachers in K-12 classrooms, profs in OSU's Music Education) and people in a company that makes electronic keyboards (probably just Yamaha, but maybe Casio, or both), and others.     { iou – This paragraph will be updated when things begin happening. }



How? — A brief outline of using harmony to make melodies by "playing games with music, guided by colors" is above.  The following “how-to paragraphs” describe — with more detail than above, but less detail than in the corresponding parts (about playing a keyboard & using harmony) of my main page about Improvising Music (because those parts were condensed when making this section) — how playing with my colorized keyboard can help us learn basic music theory and use chord progressions (that combine simultaneous harmony with sequential harmony) to make beautiful music.  We'll begin with simplicity, when you...


• play only black notes:  At first, just play any way you want, listen and learn.  You cannot “make a melodic mistake” – because anything you do will sound fairly good – so just relax and play with the black notes in different ways.  When you're exploring, you'll find that some ways are more personally useful (for enjoyment, personal expression, aesthetic appeal,...) so listen for these, and have fun exploring the melodic & rhythmic possibilities.   /   Probably you'll notice that sometimes you're using one note as a “home note” by playing it a little more often, and maybe starting or ending on it.  Then with a new kind of experiment (if it isn't “old” because you've already done it) you can shift your musical focus to one of the other 4 home notes, until you've explored using each of them.  With each home note, you're exploring — by making choices about the note you're playing at each time during your melody — the notes of a different pentatonic scale.  Below, a diagram shows the home-note for a pentatonic major scale and minor scale;  the other 3 black notes are the home-notes for 3 other scales.  All 5 scales let you play interesting music, in different ways.    {more about the creative benefits of using black keys for pentatonic scales}   /   And of course you can play mainly black notes, but also some white notes.

• play only white notes:  As with the black notes, for awhile "just play any way you want, listen and learn."  scales using black &Then if you use C (shown on this keyboard diagram) as a “home note” you'll be playing in the key of C Major, using all of its scale notes, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.   Or use A as a home note, to play in the key of A Minor.   /   And for each key you can mix in some black notes.    {more about notes that are white and red-blue-green}

• play only some white notes:  If you play only (or mainly) the white notes underlined with red (they're C E G) you're making melodies by using sequential harmony.   And to hear beautiful simultaneous harmony, play 2 or 3 (or more) red notes at the same time.  This combination of notes (C E G) forms a C Major Chord, and (due to the physics of sound waves & the physiology of our ears-and-brain) it sounds pleasantly harmonious, whether the notes are played simultaneously (in a chord) or sequentially (in a melody).

colored notes - black & white, plus red, blue, green• play only-red and only-blue and only-green:  On the right-side diagram, you see notes that are red, blue, and green.  For awhile play only the red notes;  then play only blue notes for awhile, then only green notes.  How?  You can just improvise the sequence of colors, by playing red-notes for awhile, and then (whenever you want) shifting to another color (either blue or green, whatever you want) and then to another color, and so on.  Or you can alternate the colors according to a plan.  You can do “planned changes” between red-blue-green in many ways;  for example, play red-blue-green-red-... for awhile (like 8 beats for each color, or 4 or 16) (or if you're in a waltzy mood, do 6, 3, or 12);  or instead do red-green-blue-red-... or red-blue-red-green-...;  or invent your own ways.  When you do this color-guided musical experimenting, you're...


Using Harmony (with a Chord Progression) to Make Melodies:

Why?  This is the most common way to make music – whether it's classical, popular (in all areas), or jazz – because it's an effective way to create melodies-and-harmonies that are enjoyable & interesting.  This is because people enjoy two kind of harmony, simultaneous and sequential.

Why?  Due to the interactions of musical physics with human physiology and memory, people enjoy hearing chord-notes when they're played together simultaneously (to form a chord that is harmonious) and also when they're played sequentially (to form a melody that is harmonious).

How?  To make “harmonious” melodies by using sequential harmony, you can play along with a single chord, or with a chord progression.  You already have been doing this if (while playing only-red and only-blue and only-green) "you just improvise the sequence of colors... or you alternate the colors according to a plan."  But "the most common way to make music" is to use chord progressions, and musicians have discovered that some chord progressions are especially useful for making music with "melodies-and-harmonies that are enjoyable & interesting."  One of the most common chord progression is 12 Bar Blues, and I'll be using it to illustrate strategies for skillfully improvising music.  But these music-making strategies also work well for other chord progressions.


What?  When you carefully listen to a song with a chord progression (CP) of “12-Bar Blues” you will hear chord changes (harmony changes) occurring in a pattern that repeats every 12 bars of music, which usually (with 4 rhythmic musical beats per bar) is every 48 beats.  In the Key of C-Major, the basic CP-pattern is 4 bars with C-Chords (CEG), 2 with F-Chords (FAC), 2 with C-Chords (CEG), 1 with G-Chords (GBD), 1 with F-Chords (FAC), and 2 with C-Chords (CEG).  Written in condensed form, it's CCCCFFCCGFCC.  Usually each 12-bar pattern is followed by another 12-bar pattern until the song ends.

What?  In addition to this description, you also should HEAR some chord progressions of 12 Bar Blues, as in youtube videos.  And other ways to listen include electronic keyboards that have a variety of CP's (including 12-Bar Blues) pre-recorded into their memory, so you can just “push a button” to make your keyboard play a chord progression.

How?  After some listening you'll want to play along, to “experiment, listen and learn” so you can improve your ability to play notes that “fit” with the chord progression, to make music that sounds good.  At first you may find this easier if you play only the note-colors that match the chord being played;  during the 4 measures of CCCC you'll play only notes that are in a C-Chord (CEG), then during FF you'll play only the notes of an F-Chord (FAC), and so on.  As you continue learning from your musical experiences, you will discover the kinds of note-sequences (the kinds of melodies) that sound good with each chord.  And you will develop “intuitive feelings” for how to merge your melodies (using only chord notes) with the changing chords in the 12-bar pattern, so you make smooth transitions from one chord to the next chord.  Or you may find it easier to make smooth transitions when you play mostly matching-color notes, but also some other-colored notes.  And eventually, you certainly will want to include other-colored notes, because this will make your melodies more pleasantly interesting, more fun to hear, for you and for others.

What?  Some videos have a chart showing you the 12 chords in a pattern of basic 12 Bar Blues.  This adds visual information that is useful because it helps you to learn the 12-bar structure, and to recognize the chord changes while you're listening.  Often, instead of a simple CCCCFFCCGFCC the chart is CCCCFFCCGFCG with the final C (a C-Chord) replaced by G (a G-Chord) to form a turnaround that helps to distinguish the ending of one 12-bar pattern (CC) from the beginning (CCCC) of the next 12-bar pattern, so instead of CCCCCC it's CGCCCC.     {more about turnarounds}

[[ iou – This section is almost finished, but it will have a little more content later, maybe starting Monday morning, August 29. ]]



more IOU's

{ later, maybe by the evening of August 30, here I'll briefly describe some of the scientific research about music, and will provide links to pages with more detail – I've begun searching and there is a LOT of research;  modern science strongly supports claims for the benefits that people – especially seniors & juniors, the old & young – get from listening to music and making music. }  {e.g. improved physical performing & enjoying, as in my Tempo Music & Running Tempo}

{ and before September 1, this will be an outline of my plans for cooperative collaborations;  it will be a modifed version – adapted for music education (and the very different learning-situations in living facilities and in K-12 schools) – of what I say about working with others to improve our problem-solving education for K-12. }



Improvising Music and Conversation

What?  In early-August 2022, this page had two proposals, to help people improvise music and conversation.  Now it's just one proposal, for improvising music.

What?  But I've only eliminated the proposal regarding MY ideas.  Not for the ideas of other people.  I continue to think that conversation activities will be extremely beneficial for seniors (and maybe also for K-12 students) IF these activities are designed by people who have more expertise than me, and IF they are done well by the activity directors in senior facilities.

Why?  My change of mind was due to a recognition that talking-activities should be done well (or not done at all), and doing them well would be difficult, plus my own justifiable humility in this area.   /    All conversation activities should be done well because conversation is relationally important, so it's personally important;  it can be “high stakes” emotionally, for people of all ages.    Due to the complexities of people and our conversations, doing conversation activities with consistently high quality – for most persons (who as a group have a wide variety of backgrounds, personalities, abilities) in a wide range of situations – would be difficult.    And conversation education is an area where I have much less expertise, compared with music education where I feel more confident.   /   For these reasons – because conversation activities would be personally important & difficult, and I have low expertise – I should approach conversation education cautiously, by humbly sharing ideas with others (who have more teaching expertise & experience) and mainly asking “what do YOU think?”, by contrast with my confident sharing-of-ideas in music education.     {some ideas for possible conversation activities are in another page}

iou – In late September, here I'll describe some ideas (with quotes & links) about the importance of conversation, and difficulties in doing it well.



This gray box contains informal information, to supplement the more-formal "proposals" at the top of this page.


some personal history:

I've had fun with music.

My early experiences were listening to music on the radio, and with our family's collection of vinyl records.

Then I began playing pre-composed music with trombone in school bands, 5th grade thru high school, in Iowa and Anaheim CA.  Our family's move upgraded me from one of the worst junior high bands (in Iowa) to one of the best high school bands (in California) where I enjoyed being a small fish (just one of the Second Trombones) in a big pond.

After moving to Seattle for graduate school (in Chemistry) at my first UW, I began playing improvised music.  At first I “played by ear” along with songs I had tape-recorded or was hearing on the radio, playing melodies (with variations) or supporting roles (roughly like a bass line or rhythm guitar, or the kind of harmonizing-with-melody “second trombone” supporting role that I often played in high school).  The next summer, jam sessions with Harold & Charlie (playing clarinet & trumpet) included improvising with 12 Bar Blues (a simple chord progression they taught me), and I was fascinated by the elegant beauty of the simple music theory.

In Fall 1975 while living in Eugene OR, at the Saturday Market I met Joe Kasik who sold the bamboo flutes he made.  He showed me – at the market and then the workshop in his home (where he and his wife, Nancy, had a back yard ending with the Mackenzie River) some “how to do it” principles, and for two months (in early 1976) I was making bamboo flutes in Anaheim, and selling them at weekend markets in Orange County.  To help people play, and to sell more flutes, I wrote a 4-page booklet about making music by playing melodies and by improvising with chord progressions.  For two years, 1980-81, I taught workshops on playing kazoo (to make music by singing) for Seatle's largest-in-USA Northwest Folklife Festival.

After moving to Madison for graduate school (in History of Science) at my second UW, for 3 semesters I was a Teaching Assistant for "Physics in the Arts" that included color mixing (like “splitting out the white”) and photography, plus music theory that showed students why major chords have a pleasant sound, due to the physics of sound & the physiology of humans.

In mid-1997, I condensed my PhD dissertation (about teaching Scientific Method in Science Education) and made web-pages that I self-published on the web.  A year later in 1998, I wrote a page about Musical Improvisation, and have continued developing it.  The Internet Archive (Wayback Machine) shows this page in 2004 (fairly short, 8.3 screens) -

In June 2019 our mother was fairly independent, low maintenance, could move around the house without help, with minimal pain.  Then in mid-July she injured her lower back while bending over to take off her shoes, and life was never the same for her.  After 10 days of me trying to cope with the new situation, she was in facilities (medical, nursing care, residential) for the next 4 months, the rest of her life.  Mom died at 95 after a long-and-good life, with her & Dad helping others (family, friends, his students) have good lives.  My sister and I decided that the best residence for our mother was Sunrise Senior Living of Huntington Beach, and overall we were very happy with them.  But I observed their activities, and thought “they could do these in ways that would be more beneficial for the residents,” and these thoughts led to my two proposals, for improvising music and also (but mainly as a learner & maybe a stimulater, as explained below) improvising conversation.