10 Improvisation Games for Ensembles

Theater games help actors create new material and build trust. We can experience the same benefits from creative musical games.

Ease Fears

Improvisation is the source of paralyzing fear and for many musicians, and community-building games help ease fears about the creative process. The novelty, unpredictability, and attainable challenges help drive our attention into the present moment.

Engage Everyone

Group activities engage everyone in the ensemble. The jazz education model of teaching improvisation puts musicians on the spot one at a timemusicians who aren’t playing tend to check out mentally, and many inexperienced soloists get freaked out when put on the spot.

Introduce Creative Practices

Games allow us to experience profound creative practices: experimentation, creative risks, and playing within self-imposed limitations. Although some of the icebreaker games are silly, the practices help us improvise and compose in other areas.

Creative games and activities are the foundation of the Game Symphony Workshop.

When refer to various activities of life as “games,” we do not mean to imply that these activities are frivolous or make no difference. . .Half the fun of playing games like baseball—or the kind that come in a box—is that they challenge us to adapt and hone our skills. . .Naming your activities as a game breaks their hold on you and puts you in charge. Just look carefully at the cover of the box, and if the rules do not light up your life, put it away, take out another one you like better, and play the new game wholeheartedly. Remember, it’s all invented.

Roz Zander, The Art of Possibility

Here are ten of my favorite games for musicians who may be new to improvisation:


1. Ribbon Game

From W.A. Mathieu

– Arrange the ensemble in an arc or circle
– Designate a starting musician
– Players each play a single note passing the sounds clockwise around the circle
– For small ensembles, continue through several cycles


Check In
To break the ice with a new group, each musician gives a spoken introduction (name, musical background, silly question) and then plays/sings a single note that expresses how they are feeling in the moment.

Ordered Cartoon Trades
From John Zorn’s game piece Cobra

Ribbon game with silly or novelty sounds

Ribbon game in tempo, each musician plays a quarter note

Two Notes
Pulse ribbon game—each musician plays two eighth notes

Morphing Chorale

Pulse ribbon game, each musician enters at forte and gradually fades out so 4-5 musicians are always playing together

Set a stopwatch and time how fast the ensemble can complete one (or several) cycles of a ribbon melody

2. THX

A musical impression of THX trailer from the movies.

– Begin with soft noodling/warm up sounds and gradually transition to a fortissimo concert D
– The random sounds and concert D should overlap in the middle
– Gradual crescendo throughout
– The entire piece should be 15-20 seconds

3. We Are the Score

From composer and Game Symphony Workshop facilitator Kaley Lane Eaton

– Arrange the ensemble in an arc or circle.
– Musicians may choose to stand, sit, or sit with a raised hand.
– Each musician represents one beat of a musical score—seated musicians are quarter notes, standing musicians are two eighth notes, and musicians with a raised hand are quarter rests.
– Designate a starting musician
– Count off a tempo and everyone claps the rhythm in unison, visually scanning clockwise around the circle
– Continue through several cycles
– Play/sing the rhythm in unison, or with predetermined set of pitches

Musicians who sit on the floor are three eighth note triplets
Musicians change positions/rhythmic values

4. Musical Signature

Part 1:

– Ask each musician to speak their full name while clapping the syllables
– Accent the strong syllables (ba-RACK o-BA-ma)
– Conduct, or drum a pulse, ask one musician to repeatedly clap their name
– Add musicians one at a time

Part 2:

– Ask each musician to compose a musical signature—a melody to go with the rhythmic framework
– Accented syllables should be the highest pitches of the phrase
– Conduct or drum a pulse, and ask musicians to play/sing their signatures as a group

5. Free Conducting

From Walter Thompson’s Soundpainting language for live composition (Shapeline)

– Ask for a volunteer conductor
– Musicians in the ensemble paint a musical portrait of every motion, gesture, and facial expression the conductor makes
– The conductor can dance, pantomime, or use props. (Watch free conducting in action).

6. Guess the Animal

From Jeffrey Agrell’s Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians

– Divide into groups of 4-6 musicians
– Each group chooses an animal to express musically and discusses strategies for expressing it through music
– Each group performs for the large ensemble
– The audience tries to guess the animal

Guess the Emotion
Guess the Machine

7. Doodle Score

– A volunteer has 30 seconds to draw a picture or abstract doodle on a white board or sheet of paper
– A soloist or small group improvises a musical portrait of the doodle


Graphic Score Telephone

– Draw on a sheet of paper, and don’t let the audience see the drawing
– During the performance, another volunteer will draw a new doodle based on the music
– The soloist/ensemble performs another improvisation based on the new doodle
– Repeat the above steps
– Compare all the scores

8. Pentatonic Ostinato

– Teach the ensemble a pentatonic scale by ear (scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, 6)
– One player improvises a short ostiniato (continually repeating phrase)
– One at a time, players enter with their own ostinatos (no predetermined order)
– Once everyone has entered, players exit one at a time.


Drum or conduct a pulse
Players can gradually alter and develop their ostinatos
Change keys on cue

9. Channel Surfing

– Give a conductor an imaginary remote control
– Each musician is a channel, and performs unaccompanied when directed by the remote
– Only one musician plays at a time
– You may need to describe what life was like before YouTube and Netflix

Two conductors, so two musicians are playing simultaneously

10. Affect Symphony

From W.A. Mathieu

– Choose 4-6 performers and a conductor
– Each performer chooses an emotional state to express musically (or take suggestions from the audience)
– The conductor cues entrances and cut offs for each musician
– Encourage the conductor to experiment with monologues, duets, and larger scenes

The purpose of musical games is not to generate a polished product, but to make musicians feel safe, adventuresome, and confident in the creative process.

– W. A. Mathieu

I’d love to hear about your experience playing these games with your ensembles. Leave a comment or email me at steve@stevetres.com

– ST

Reserve a free digital copy of my forthcoming book Creativity Triggers for Musicians. The practices and strategies will help you unlock and unblock your innate creativity.