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Musical Exploration Made Easy: 6 Tips for Noodling on Any Instrument


a cat sitting in a lap looking at some noodles on chopsticks and thinking "what do noodles have to do with music? Humans are weird."

Noodle. Tootle. Strum. Plunk. Fiddle around. There are many words to describe informally or casually playing an instrument. I like the term “noodle”. I’m not referring to pasta (and a noun) either. Here, noodle is a verb. To noodle is to improvise a musical passage casually. Improvisation is making up music out of thin air.


There are many misconceptions about improvisation: only jazz musicians do it, it’s hard and takes many years of practice, or it’s a waste of time. But anyone can improvise. It’s not difficult, and it teaches many valuable skills! It’s a fantastic way to really get a feel for how notes work with one another, what sounds good, and what doesn’t sound good. And it’s fun! Another component of noodling practice time is composition. Writing music. An original composition may flow from improvisation, or a child may set out to write music based on a theme.


Noodling should be relatively unstructured, and the sky’s the limit. Going into detail with a structure for this part of the practice routine is challenging in a blog post. Here are a few tips and ideas to help your child start noodling, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Talk to your child’s teacher about improvisation activities. Teaching improvisation and composition as a regular part of piano lessons is a relatively new trend in music instruction. I include improvisation from lesson one and add in composition quickly. My student’s eyes light up when they can make beautiful music so soon on their instrument before they can even read a single note on the staff.


6 Ideas for Noodling


Just. Play.

Encourage your child to explore the sounds on their instrument. The only “rule” should be “Don’t abuse your instrument.” Otherwise, let their ear be their guide. Really hearing the music and understanding how the notes do - and don’t - work together is a vital skill that can be developed through regular free play.


Black Keys Only

The black keys make up a pentatonic scale with five notes. Pentatonic scales are so easy to be successful with that some music snobs call them cheating. Ignore them! Let It Be by The Beatles, I Love Rock ‘N Roll by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, and even Amazing Grace and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot are all written in a pentatonic scale. Some great improvisation comes from a pentatonic scale. I won’t get into what makes a pentatonic scale here, but know that if your child plays only black keys, they will work together beautifully!


Re-arrange

Your child can create new arrangements for favorite songs they have already learned. They could add a new intro or change the ending, add more lyrics and accompanying music, experiment with playing it on a different octave or style, or rewrite the melody and rhythm.


Backing Tracks

Backing tracks are a fun and easy way to sound amazing while improvising. Unfortunately, a quick search on YouTube garnered nothing that looked promising for a beginning piano student. There are a lot of backing accompaniments out there that work beautifully for a beginner. Still, people have yet to record any and put them on YouTube. My piano students regularly get backing tracks in their assignments for noodling practice time. Once your child starts to understand key signatures, though, you can look on YouTube for a specific key, and you will find some options. Search for “backing track X major / x minor” and go from there.


Compose a Story

Encourage your child to tell a story through music. You can start simple. Ask your child to play what a mouse would sound like, then a dog, elephant, etc. Ask them to pick two animals and tell a story about their interaction. Pick out a favorite story you have read with them and ask them to compose what the story would sound like on the piano. Don’t point out if the music they write is not melodic or is full of harmonies we wouldn’t usually think of as “lovely.” Let their ear be their guide and let them explore what sounds good judgment-free.


Play by Ear

Playing something by ear in music means playing something without seeing the notation. Sing the section your child is figuring out. Focus on the first note of the phrase. Let them hunt and peck around the keys until they find that first note. Then, take it note by note and build the rest of the melody one note at a time. Start small with nursery rhymes. Because nursery rhymes aren’t in one particular key and could be started on any note, you might look up some sheet music online and find a good starting note for the nursery rhyme, then let your child figure out the rest. Mary Had a Little Lamb is an excellent choice for learning by ear. It can be started on E-natural and played on all white keys or B-flat and played on all black keys.


Noodling on the piano doesn’t get the credit it deserves for being a vital part of practice. How many parents have called in from the kitchen with, “That doesn’t sound like practicing”? It is! It is practicing. If you want your child to want to play their instrument, they should have some ownership over the music they make. What better way for them to have ownership than for them to be the creator of the sounds! If my students only have time for one type of practice, I want it to be noodling. Not every day. Not long-term. But it is absolutely an essential part of practice for my studio. I had a student this week who composed a whole song based on a five-note scale I’d given her to improvise on the week before. It was amazing! She’d spent thoughtful time on it, which brought her joy in her playing. Isn’t that what we want for our children? Encourage noodling!




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