The bulk of the work involved in improvising an entire song is understanding how a song works, and the key to this is musical theory. But I'll try not to overload you with too much theory this week. For now, you have to get your group to start improvising using chords and chord progressions. The single greatest method for improvising chords that I ever stumbled upon was a method designed by Dr. Cindy Bell, who now works at Hofstra University. The bibliography at the end will tell you how to locate her original article.
Step 3: Improvising Chords
1) Start by making sure your group can sing a major scale on solfege syllables (DO RE MI FA SOL LA TI DO). This can be played on the piano by starting on the C key, and playing all the white keys up to the next C. (If you don't know what a C key is, use this virtual keyboard, which will tell you all the key names on the piano: www.virtualpiano.net)
Once your group members can do this successfully, isolate the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale (DO, MI, and SOL) For our sake, we'll call this the I chord (I is the roman numeral 1, not the letter "I").
2) Ask each group member to choose and hold one of the three notes in this chord (either DO, MI, or SOL). Then, on your cue (or the music director's cue), each group member chooses and sings a different note in the same chord. The resulting chord will sound exactly the same, but each group member will be singing a different syllable than the one before. Continue to do this until your group is familiar with the three notes of the I chord.
3) Next, we will isolate the notes of the V chord, which are SOL, TI, and RE. The group should repeat step two, staying within the three notes of the V chord only.
4) When the group gets comfortable with the V chord, the next challenge is to switch between the two chords. Group members should choose and hold one of the three notes in the I chord (DO, MI, or SOL) and then switch to one of the three notes in the V chord (SOL, TI, or RE). The group should practice switching between these two chords until they are comfortable.
To improve this step (which is likely the hardest step), it is necessary for group members to plan ahead and be able to identify how far away each note of the I chord is from each note of the V chord. For example, the note SOL appears in both chords, so that note can be held between both chords successfully. The note DO (from the I chord) and the note RE (from the V chord) are very close to each other (see major scale above), so the move between them should be simple. Likewise the notes DO and TI are close together, as are MI and RE, etc. Recognizing these simple step progressions is the easiest way for group members to switch between chords.
5) Once the group is comfortable with the I and V chords, add the IV chord, which consists of the syllables (DO, FA, and LA). The group should familiarize themselves with this chord by itself (step 2) and then practice switching between all three chords (step 4). Note that all of these chords contain syllables within the major scale.
6) When your group gets comfortable, add the vi chord, which contains the syllables LA, DO, and MI. (For clarification, the vi is lowercase on purpose...don't worry about why that is). Repeat steps 2 and 4.
7) Practice moving through these chords in the following order:
I chord, V chord, vi chord, IV chord.
This is one of the most common chord progressions in popular music. Hundreds of pop songs follow these four chords, in this pattern, over and over again. Don't believe me? Watch this Youtube video of the Australian comedy group "Axis of Awesome." [Viewer discretion advised]
Another common chord progression is what we musicians call the "Twelve-Bar Blues." This is a twelve-chord progression, typically sung in a jazzy rhythm:
I chord, I chord, I chord, I chord, IV chord, IV chord, I chord, I chord, V chord, IV chord, I chord, V chord
Many of the songs from the Blues era, Doo-wop era, 50's era, and even a lot of Elvis songs follow this progression. Here are some listening examples. See if you recognize how the chords move similarly in each one:
"Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry (also from the movie "Back To The Future")
"Blue Suede Shoes" by Elvis Presley
"Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley
"Shake, Rattle, and Roll" by Big Joe Turner
"Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard
Another common chord progression is:
I chord, IV chord, I chord, V chord
The best example of this progression is in the a cappella standard "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Groups are used to singing this progression on the "wim-o-weh" syllables, but substituting the solfege syllables will work. Another song that utilizes this progression...The chorus of "Some Nights" by F.U.N.
It is also common to see the I V vi IV progression shuffled, so that the same four chords are being used, but in a different order. Starting on the vi chord, for example, tricks the listener into thinking the song is in a minor key (which, technically, it is...don't worry about why). Take the following progression from Adele's "Rolling In The Deep." If music theorists look at this progression, they would probably label it like this:
i chord, III chord, VI chord, VII chord
This progression is cleverly disguised. Really, the progression is:
vi chord, I chord, IV chord, V chord
See? It's the same progression as the first one I presented, but in a different order. Next week, I'll discuss how to recognize exactly what order these chord progressions are in. For now, here is a list of popular songs that use the I V vi IV progression, but in different orders:
"Blow" by Ke$ha
"Payphone" by Maroon 5
"We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift
"Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga
"Baby" by Justin Bieber
"S&M" by Rihanna (which was used in "Pitch Perfect")
"Just The Way You Are" by Bruno Mars (also used in "Pitch Perfect")
I'm not saying these are bad songs. Just the opposite. I'm saying that these songs fit perfectly with the kind of songs we are looking for to add to our riff-off repertoire, because they manipulate the common four-chord progression into something different.
Step 4: Adding Rhythms and Riffs
Songs are not just made up of chords. They also contain rhythms. Try the process outlined in step 3, but add a rhythm to each chord instead of just holding it. For example, instead of holding DO, try singing DO on 4 "quarter notes" or 8 "eighth notes." Listen to the instrumental parts of a song and imitate the rhythm of the bass guitar or keyboard. Rhythm is what drives the music forward and gives it a feeling of motion, so rhythm is essential.
If your group is comfortable with improvising chords, have one person in the group sing the "riff" of the song. The "riff" is usually the most recognizable part of the song, as it is repeated over and over by one or multiple instruments. Take the popular Beatles song "Day Tripper." The musical line that you hear in the beginning is the "riff" of the song. It repeats almost over the entire track. If you sang that line, everyone in the audience would know immediately what song you were about to perform, even if you haven't sung a single lyric yet. Recognizable "riffs" are just as important as chords and rhythms.
Steps 3 and 4 are vital steps if you want to improvise full songs. These steps are undoubtedly the most difficult part, and require weekly practice and focus. But if your group is serious about trying a riff-off, these are indeed the most important steps.
Next week, I'll explain how to identify chord progressions on your own, and how to produce a riff-off competition.