Improvisation Techniques for Singing Pop and R&B


Authored by Gabrielle Goodman


Course Code: OVOIC-320

Next Semester
Starts April 3

Level 3

Level 3

3-Credit Tuition


Non-Credit Tuition


In this course you will study various aspects of improvisation in the pop and R&B styles. We will analyze how melody, rhythm, harmony, and language can be used in vocal improvisation to enhance songs and examine how different artists use these skills to improvise. We will refer back to all of these aspects of improvisation in greater detail throughout the course, while we build an improvisational toolkit to guide our vocal improvisations.

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You will learn several techniques in improvisation in the pop and R&B styles. You will learn improvisational techniques used by Etta James, Christina Aguilera, The Weeknd, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Justin Timberlake, Prince, Demi Lavato, and more. You will learn riffs based on pentatonic scales, the use of mixed voice, falsetto, belting, gritty textures and other widely used techniques in the pop and R&B genres while applying them to well-known songs in these genres in weekly assignments.

By the end of the course, you will be able to:

  • Build improvisational skills in pop and R&B styles
  • Improvise with emotional impact
  • Use blues and pentatonic scales as improvisational tools
  • Use scale patterns, tonal textures, and other devices within the framework of songs
  • Use improvisational ideas to enhance melodies
  • Understand song forms that exist in R&B and pop
  • Improvise in all parts of a song
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Overview Syllabus Requirements Instructors
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Lesson 1: What Is Improvisation?

  • Defining Improvisation
  • The Chest Voice and Improvisational Slides
  • Choosing the Right Key
  • The Vocal Improv ‘Toolkit’ and Song Form
  • Etta James and Christina Aquilera
  • Assignment 1: ‘At Last’

Lesson 2: Basic Scales and Blue Notes

  • The Blues Scale and Blues Form
  • Words and Syllables
  • Blue Notes
  • Gritty Textures
  • Assignment 2: ‘What’d I Say’

Lesson 3: R&B and Pop Rhythmic Phrasing, Syncopation and Breathing

  • Rhythmic Phrasing
  • Sam Cooke: Early R&B/Pop and Conversational Phrasing
  • Diaphragmatic Breathing and Catch Breaths with Roberta Flack and Lauryn Hill
  • Phrasing with Syncopation with Jill Scott
  • Putting It All Together
  • Discussion Question: How can rhythmic phrasing and syncopation be used to transform a song?
  • Assignment: ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’

Lesson 4: Analysis of Jazz Grooves and Improvisation

  • Overview of Grooves
  • 6/8, 12/8, Slow and Medium Gospel Shuffle
  • Use of Space with Improvisation
  • Syncopated Phrasing and Melodic Alterations
  • Ballads such as Chaka Khan’s ‘Through the Fire’
  • Slow to Fast-Changing Tempos and Transformations
  • Assignment: ‘Fallin’’ and ‘Proud Mary’

Lesson 5: Range and Registers Through the Lens of Improvisation

  • Vocal Register
  • Working with Your Vocal Range
  • Riffing from High to Low/ Low to High with Mariah Carey
  • Accessing the Mixed Voice Technique
  • Assignment: Choose a Song and Key

Lesson 6: Belting

  • What is Belting and How Do Your Favorite Artists Use It?
  • Release Your Jaw, Open Your Mouth, and Belt
  • The Volume—You Can’t Belt Softly
  • Belting and Riffing
  • Assignment: ‘Lovely Day’

Lesson 7: Light Singing

  • Improvising with Lighter Sounds
  • Forward Placement with Mariah Carey
  • Using Falsetto In R&B and Pop
  • Flipping into the Head Voice
  • Assignment: ‘Kiss’ and ‘Saving All My Love for You’

Lesson 8: Gospel Techniques That Have Influenced R&B and Pop Singing

  • The Connection Between R&B, Pop, and Gospel singing
  • Riffs with the Minor Scale
  • Pentatonics
  • Artist Spotlight: The Clark Sisters
  • Combined Scales with The Clark Sisters
  • Assignment: ‘Amazing Grace’

Lesson 9: Improvisation in The Style of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway

  • The Mordent with Stevie Wonder
  • Using Twangy Textures
  • Donny Hathaway’s Riffs with the Mixolydian Scale
  • Donny Hathaway’s use of the Minor Triad
  • Assignment: ‘Ribbon in the Sky’ and ‘A Song for You’

Lesson 10: Melismas and the R&B Singers of the 1990s

  • Brian McKnight
  • Mariah Carey’s Cadenzas
  • Riffing on a Cadence
  • Melisma in Practice
  • Assignment: ‘Dreamlover’ and ‘Anytime’

Lesson 11: Techniques Used by Whitney Houston, Allen Stone, and Bruno Mars

  • Whitney Houston’s Long Tones
  • Breathy Tones and Dynamics
  • The Color Palette with Allen Stone and Bruno Mars
  • Exciting Intros Starting with A Capella Riffs
  • Assignment: ‘Who’s Loving You’ or ‘I Will Always Love You’

Lesson 12: Then and Now

  • Improvisation Then and Now
  • Songs Sung by Male Artists Then, Now Sung by Female Artists
  • Lalah Hathaway’s Use of the Sharp 11
  • Adding the Hip-Hop Flavor
  • Assignment: Demonstrate the Use of Chest Voice, Upper Register Head Voice or Falsetto, Pentatonic Riffs


Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

Completion of Voice Technique 101 or equivalent knowledge and experience is required.

Students should have:

  • Ability to match pitches
  • An understanding of chord structures and scales
  • A general understanding of singing contemporary pop and R&B music

Required Textbook(s)

Software Requirements

  • A basic audio recording tool that will allow you to record yourself and save the recording in MP3 format. You will have a tool to use for this purpose inside the learning environment. Alternatively, you can use software like Audacity (PC) or GarageBand (Mac), or a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).

Hardware Requirements

  • A printer is recommended, so that you can print out music examples used in the course

After enrolling, please check the Getting Started section of your course for potential deals on required materials. Our Student Deals page also features several discounts you can take advantage of as a current student. Please contact for any questions.

General Course Requirements

Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in Live Chats. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course. 

Mac Users

PC Users

All Users

  • Latest version of Google Chrome
  • Zoom meeting software
  • Webcam
  • Speakers or headphones
  • External or internal microphone
  • Broadband Internet connection


Gabrielle Goodman

Author & Instructor

Gabrielle Goodman is a professor in the Voice Department at Berklee College of Music. Well-versed in jazz, R&B, classical, and gospel, Gabrielle has performed with Chaka Khan, Al Jarreau, Nancy Wilson, and Roberta Flack, who calls Goodman "one of the finest singers around today." Her 1993 JMT/Polygram debut release Travelin' Light brought her international acclaim.

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Gabrielle won an ASCAP Songwriting Award for "You Can Make the Story Right," a song she co-wrote with Chaka Khan. Gabrielle has performed in both classical and jazz idioms with the Syracuse Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, the Baltimore Opera, and the National Symphony. Her theatrical appearances include Maya Angelou's gospel/opera King and the Canadian production of Ain't Misbehavin’, co-starring Dee Dee Bridgewater. In the early 2000s, Gabrielle toured the show Forever Swing with Michael Buble. She has performed as a guest soloist with the Boston Pops on numerous occasions. Her television appearances include The Late Show with David Letterman, The Arsenio Hall Show, A&E Channel, the BBC, and the German TV show Talk and Swing.

Gabrielle has 3 self-produced albums and has released three albums, respectively, Angel Eyes (2004), Song From The Book (2011) and Spiritual Tapestry (2014) which includes guests Patrice Rushen, Terri Lyne Carrington, Walter Beasley and Armsted Christian, in addition to authoring the book Vocal Improvisation in 2009.

Recent tours include performances in China, Bogota, Colombia, and Russia. Read Less

Darcel Wilson


A vocal phenomenon, Darcel Wilson possesses an engaging sound that is powerful and expressive. Since the age of fifteen, she’s lent her talents to noteworthy projects.

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She’s worked with Branford Marsalis, Paul Simon, Mark (Marky Mark) Wahlberg, Walter Beasley, Fatwall Jack, Brad Delp (lead singer of Boston,) Armsted Christian, Keith Robinson (with Metropolis,) and with Producer Dan Serafini.

She also served as Lead Session Singer and Vocal Arranger for the Broadway show Brooklyn The Musical with writers Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson. Darcel ventured to Germany to coach German singer Ute Schoenherr, and provided vocal production services on recording sessions in London and Los Angeles.

Darcel’s voice can be heard on a multitude of radio and television. jingles. Credits include CVS, McDonald’s, The Oprah WinfreyShow, Filene’s Basement, The WB Network, Comcast Cable, Sprint, Eye World, and The Boston Herald.

Darcel co-wrote and sang on a song for the Arthritis Foundation as well. The song, produced by George Duke, was recorded in Los Angeles at O•Henry and LeGonks. Other performers included Jeffery Osborne, Deniece Williams, Phillip Bailey, Chante Moore, Sheila E., Boney James, Everett Harp, Lori Perri, Howard Hewitt, Rick Braun, Kenny Lattimore, Lynn Fiddemont, and many others.

Since 1998, Darcel has worked as an instructor of Theory, Ensembles, and Voice for the City Music Saturday Program at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. She devoted nine summers to the College as a full time faculty member in the Five-Week Summer Performance Program before joining the Ear Training faculty in 2006.

Recently, Darcel has been very active on the international front. In 2007, she traveled to Kobe and Nagoya, Japan as a performing clinician at Koyo Conservatory. In early 2008, she accompanied Berklee College of Music for a Vocal Summit in Frieburg Germany with fellow faculty Donna McElroy, Bob Stoloff and Dennis Montgomery. Also in May 2008/2009 in Puerto Rico , Darcel taught at the Heineken Jazz Festival.

Darcel enjoys continued success while she’s working on her new solo album project. Read Less

What's Next?

When taken for credit, Improvisation Techniques for Singing Pop and R&B can be applied towards these associated programs:

Associated Degree Major


Contact our Academic Advisors by phone at 1-866-BERKLEE (U.S.), 1-617-747-2146 (INT'L), or by email at

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