Sunday, October 2, 2011

Playing Riffs On The Piano

Oscar Peterson
When playing the piano by ear the masters never improvise a song the same way twice.  They do however, play the same riffs repeatedly and call them up as their mind leads them.  They are spontaneous and play what they feel at the moment.  For them it’s like walking or talking in their ability to express themselves musically without effort.  Not knowing what's coming up makes the music exciting.

They think it and it happens.

How did they ever get so good?

They have a mental acuity for music that most musicians do not.  It’s the same for the greats on any instrument (guitar; clarinet; sax; etc...).  They’re riff collectors.  They hear or see something new and file it away for later.

Everyone has some bent towards collecting or a deep keenness of some subject or another.  The accountant and numbers; handicapping horse races; remembering dates, addresses and phone numbers, etc...

For the piano giants, it’s the same thing except they collect riffs.

How Infinity Works in Music.

This subject is deep.  First, consider that an infinity of music is created with 8 notes.  To that, compare the infinity of combining just 8 riffs together in different orders.  Those possibilities are infinite as well.  Take it further and imagine having a hundred riffs up your sleeve (or maybe a thousand)!  That’s yet even more to add to the infinite-variations mix.  Improvisation is a numbers game in the infinite musical universe.

Actively apply the concept of infinity as you watch and study the masters.  How did they learn to play with such style?  It’s hard to say but having a thousand riffs to tap as they feel is part of it.  They are a conduit through which music flows and -if they are a perfect vessel- have the technical ability to express their thoughts.

All the masters seem to have clean technical skills as accurate as a bullseye.  Add to that proficiency one more thing.  Again, infinity.  With so much technical control of their thoughts, there are no mistakes.  Even when they hit a wrong note, it's still the right note.

How to incorporate things into your improvisations.

Playing by ear is both a listening and watching skill.  It’s good to have musicians to learn from.  However, as you watch Oscar Peterson perform an impossible solo you might think “How in the world can I ever learn that?”

You learn it one riff at a time.

Become a conscious riff collector.  Try to extract just one little riff out of a complicated solo that you can play right now.  Make observations of inflections, accents or ways of passing from one chord to another.  Just make a small extraction and don't try to comprehend the entire solo at one time.

Listen only for the things you can do and sit back and marvel at all the rest.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

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