How to sing, rap and beatbox - improvising

  • Learn about the different styles of improvisation including singing, rap and beatboxing.
  • Find out how Stromzy, Sarah Vaughan and Bobby McFerrin use improvisation in their music.
  • Have a go at improvising your own song.
Watch how Ben, Dujon and Tara beatbox, rap and sing to improvise a new version of their song The Sound Of Us.

Improvisation is creating music on the spot whilst playing an instrument or singing - it has not been planned or rehearsed. Usually, this will be responding to the style of music being played, and to other performers.

Performers using the voice will often improvise on existing melodies in a piece of music. Sometimes vocalists will decorate a melody by adding extra notes to it or creating a new variation of the tune.

Freestyle rap

Improvising in rap is often known as freestyle. This can happen with or without instrumental beats and the lyrics don’t have to start with a specific subject or structure. There are two types of freestyle:

  • ‘Old-school’ freestyle, which involves rhymes that the rapper has already come up with, but doesn’t necessarily relate to any subject.

  • The type of freestyling where the rapper makes up all of their lyrics on the spot, including all of the rhyming words and patterns.

Freestyle can be performed a capella, over beatboxing or over instrumental versions of songs. The rhythms and metre are more relaxed than in general rap, so that there is room for improvisation.

Freestyle battles are a feature of hip-hop culture. They can occur between two artists as they contest each other using improvised lyrics.

You can find out more about freestyle in our Making rap artice.

Nashawn Breedlove and Eminem perform a rap battle in the film 8 Mile.

Listen to these examples of improvising with the voice

Stormzy’s famous Shut Up freestyle went viral and gained him many new fans. This studio re-recording keeps in the introduction from the freestyle video and the original backing chants.
In Sassy's Blues, Sarah Vaughan improvises using random syllables and sounds, making up the rhythms and melodies over a chord sequence.
In Opportunity, Bobby McFerrin skilfully uses body percussion and vocal sounds to accompany his own singing. By using his voice in different ways, it sounds like there are several performers, even though it's just him.

Jazz and blues improvising

Beginning in the 1920s, improvisation in jazz and blues gave a vocalist freedom. Instead of sticking to a set melody, the singer could improvise their own tune over the chord progression of the song.

In blues and jazz music, vocalists often employ scat singing in their improvisations. Scat is when the singer improvises using nonsense syllables or no words at all, sometimes using the voice to mimic instruments.

Have a go at improvising your own song

Getting started with improvising is really quite straightforward - just have a go and start singing!

Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Find an existing melody that you can sing well - maybe your favourite song or something you’re doing at school.

  • Sing the tune normally first and then sing it again with some changes, adding in decorations such as extra notes. Don’t be afraid to just have a go and try things out, even if they don’t sound good at first.

  • If you can find a version of your chosen song as a backing track, you will be able to hear if your decorations and ornaments work well or not, as you sing along.

  • Have a go at changing the way you sing – hum or scat, by making up new sounds instead of words.

Keywords

KeywordDefinition
improvisationThe art of creating music on the spot, often in response to existing music or other performers.
decorationWhere an existing melody has notes added to it, or the shape of the melody is changed.
freestyleWhen a rapper makes up a rap on the spot.
scatWhen a singer improvises using nonsense syllables, imitating an instrument rather than the human voice.
a capellaWhen a singer or vocalist performs without any instrumental backing.

Next steps

How to sing, rap and beatbox - performing
How to rap
Improvisation - with instruments