Improv Tactics – Record Yourself

Writers have notebooks and word documents.

Illustrators have sketchbooks and Photoshop files.

Photographers have scrapbooks and digital galleries.

Don’t forget that musicians have manuscript paper and sound recordings.

All too often I feel that musicians trying to learn how to improvise neglect this. When practicing any type of art, it’s necessary to jot down your ideas. Music is absolutely no exception.

I have multiple manuscript books filled with random musical ideas. Melody lines, chord progressions, lyrics, etc. I also have hundreds of Finale files and little sound recording snippets on my computer. About 95% of this content is musical “scribble”, if you will. I have audio files that last no longer than 5 seconds and Finale projects with 2 measures of notes.

While for the most part, most of these snippets never grow into a full song, I can’t tell you how many times I have sifted through my “musical scrapbook” and found inspiration. All it takes is a few notes to remind yourself of a great idea you came up with a few months ago, and those few notes will turn into the basis of your next musical creation.

That’s great for songwriting, but I thought this series was for improvising!!!!!!!!

Remember what I said in the first post? In order to improvise, you need to think creatively. Remember what I said in the second post? In order to think creatively, you need to let musical ideas flow through your head all the time. While our brains are capable of storing an enormous amount of information, you can greatly accelerate the speed at which you produce ideas by jotting them down as they come to you.

Alright, so what should you do? First of all, buy a manuscript book. Carry it around with you wherever you play your instrument. Second of all, arm yourself with some means of recording. You don’t need thousand dollar microphones or professional music software if your goal is to quickly record your ideas. Most computers come with microphones built into them now, so all you really need is software to record on.

If you play an electric instrument (electric guitar, bass, etc…) I strongly recommend getting a DI box. This will allow you to plug your instrument right into your computer (very handy if it’s late at night and you don’t want to blast your amp).

As for the computer software, you’ll have to find a convenient list of free software somewhere online to get you started. Good luck with that!

(Just kidding, here you go)

Finale Notepad:  Music notation

MuseScore:  Music notation

Frescobaldi (combined with Lilypond):  Music notation

Audacity:  Audio recording, multi-tracking

Ardour:  Audio recording, multi-tracking

There are many other programs out there, free and non-free. Some programs are better fit for beginners, but try experimenting with anything you can get your hands mouse on. Don’t forget to explore whatever operating system you’re on for any built-in audio recording software. Now go out there and take advantage of modern technology!


Software suggestion – Frescobaldi

I’ve already done a post about Lilypond, which is a text-based sheet music editor, but I have since discovered a handy piece of software that takes Lilypond to the next level.

Frescobaldi (here is the website) is an open-source editor specifically designed for Lilypond, and in my opinion it GREATLY enhances the experience. It provides a single window which contains the Lilypond text file you are working on, a preview of the PDF you are creating, and access to all of the help documentation your heart desires.

Without this software, you would have to have to work on your music code with a text editor, then run the code through Lilypond (via the terminal on Linux or by dragging the file onto the icon in Windows), which generates a PDF file that you have to re-open every time you want to check the changes you made. With Frescobaldi, everything is right there in one single window.

The built-in text editor is color coded and comes equipped with a library of Lilypond functions and variables that pop up as suggestions as you type your code. So rather than feeling like you’re typing a boring old notepad document, you feel like you’re using some fancy programming software, fit for programming the next huge operating system (or at least a sweet piano sonata). This feature is incredibly useful for keeping your text files organized and visually easy to navigate.

After making changes to the text file, all you have to do is click the Lilypond icon embedded in the top bar of the software, which compiles your code and instantly updates the PDF preview. No more closing and re-opening a PDF viewer each time you want to make any changes to your score.

As someone who considers himself far from fluent in the Lilypond language, I often have to search online for instructions on how to do certain things with Lilypond. Sometimes I forget how to add a double bar line, or how to include first and second endings, etc. The built in document view in Frescobaldi takes just about all the information I would ever need and plops it right in the window I’m already working in. Now I just tab to the documentation viewer and search keywords or navigate the contents of numerous manuals. This saves quite a bit of time and Google searches.

Along with everything I’ve mentioned here, Frescobaldi incorporates several helpful tools, including a page setup dialogue box, which allows you to fill in information about the piece, such as composer, arranger, title, etc. Once you hit the okay button, it converts your input into Lilypond code and includes it in your text file. There are several other handy features that I have not utilized, but everything is included to make your Lilypond experience as convenient as possible.

Did I mention it’s free, too? Gotta love open-source software. If you like Lilypond, download Frescobaldi…right now. In case you missed it, here is the link to their website again.

Software suggestion – Lilypond

I figured I should start things off with an informative post. That way I can at least pretend that this blog has a useful function and isn’t just a space for me to splatter my creations, blab about myself, or beg for work.

I’m here to type about a piece of software that I personally like to use for music notation called Lilypond. At this point, you may skip my lengthy explanation and simply click on this link to go directly to the website, where you’ll find download instructions and tutorials. If you’re still with me, read on.

As a big fan of open source software, I always try to find alternatives to mainstream software. My reasons being that open source software is free, usually lighter weight, and satisfies the techie in me. I say this because sometimes open source software requires a little tinkering around or has a bit of a learning curve. Lilypond is no exception, but once you learn how to work with it, you’ll quickly see the benefits.

If you do any digital music notation, you’re most likely used to products like Finale. I do own Finale (the PrintMusic version) and I’ve used it extensively. I have hundreds of Finale files filled with tons of ideas, ranging from little 2-measure ditties to multiple-paged orchestration scores. It is incredibly easy to use and has an intuitive graphic-user-interface. However, it can be a bit pricey, you have a limited number of computers you can install it on, and it may or may not be compatible with your operating system.

This is where Lilypond comes in. The notation input is actually text-based. In fact, with Lilypond, an entire orchestra score can be stored in a single text file. Yes that’s right, in its simplest form, Lilypond has no graphic user interface. Instead, you type out your score in a text file similar to typing programming code. To some people, this can be very off putting, but to others, like me, I saw it as a new and capable approach to scoring music.

After you install the program, all you have to do is open a text editor and input something like this:


c’ e’ g’ e’


You then save the file with the extension of “ly”. For example, you could save the text file as Then you run Lilypond using that file (the way this is done varies by which operating system you use. In Linux it’s done with the command line and in Windows you just drag the file on top of the Lilypond icon. I haven’t tried Lilypond on Mac, but I’m sure it’s very easy). Nothing will pop up, but Lilypond will generate a few files in the same folder that the file is in. One of those generated files is a PDF containing your music. With the above example, the following would be created:

Lilypond example

For this incredibly simple example, all Lilypond did was generate a single measure containing the notes c, e, g, then e again. It automatically assumed we wanted treble clef and that we were in common time, both of which could be changed if we would like. The apostrophes next to each letter determine which octave the note should be in. I could take a lot of time explaining how this works thoroughly, but I’d rather just point you to the already-made Lilypond tutorial here.

Once you really dig into the syntax of Lilypond you’ll find that it is 100% customizable. You can add instruments, change the time signature, the clef, the spacing of the notes, the types of barlines, etc. One of the greatest things about this software is its versatility. Just by adding a few lines of code, you can make your sheet music look exactly the way you’d like. Here’s an example of a guitar arrangement I put together for Moonlight in Vermont, made entirely with Lilypond. Just click this link to download the PDF.

Moonlight in Vermont

You can also include a few lines of code in the text file that tell Lilypond to generate a MIDI file along with the PDF. This allows you to listen to your beautiful work of art. There is a fairly large list of instruments you can choose from for you MIDI output, but don’t expect a glorious, lush grand piano or a buttery, rich cello. Yes, its still MIDI and it’s not the most amazing sounding output, but this software is more about making some sweet sheet music eye-candy, not a FLAC file that’s fit for commercial release.

Of course, in my opinion, that is one limitation of Lilypond in comparison to commercial software like Finale. In Finale you can easily play back the music you are working on with a simple click of the play button. With Lilypond you need to compile the file, open the MIDI, then seek out the portion of the song you want to hear. So as far as working on music that requires constant trial and error and real time editing, I’d say that Finale is a much easier option. That being said, there is software being produced in the open source world (such as Rosegarden) that contains a GUI for Lilypond, which would make it easier to do this kind of work. However the last time I gave it a shot it was a task and a half trying to get it to work, though it may have come a long way since then.

I would have to say that one of the best things about this software is what it takes to run it. Since there is virtually no GUI and the files you work with are literally text files, you can run this software on just about any computer. Regardless of whether or not Lilypond is installed on a computer, you can still work on your Lilypond files, as long as you have a text editor (such as Notepad for Windows, TextEdit for Mac, or gedit for Linux).

So in summary, here are the pros and cons:


– There is a learning curve.

– Lack of GUI (graphic user interface) makes it a little hard to work with for visual people.

– Not the best for real time music composing that requires constant playback.

– The quality of the MIDI output is nothing to write home about.


– Highly versatile. You can make your sheet music look exactly the way you want.

– Sheet music produced looks professional and official. Software like Finale produces sheet music in a somewhat blocky, unnatural format, in a way that makes it obvious that it was created with Finale.

– Lilypond files are text files, so the space they take up is miniscule and they can be worked on with virtually any computer.

– It’s open source and FREEEEEEEEE!!!!!!! 😀 Which is just awesome enough in itself. You have nothing to lose to give it a shot. I mean, I guess you have time to lose, but I’m sure you’ve wasted your time on much more useless things.

EDIT: Check out my more recent post on a program called Frescobaldi, which enhances the Lilypond experience.