The Art of Ad Libbing

Understanding Ad-libs

The abbreviated term “ad lib” comes from the Latin word “ad libitum” meaning “according to one’s desire or “freely as one wishes” with its first known use dating back to 1610.

I feel that ad-libbing is often misunderstood and maybe confused with; being unprepared, a thoughtless and careless way of performing a song or just winging a song or a piece of music. Far from it! Ad libbing is a very useful musical skill, one that can be developed with practice and experience and when utilised well, it can truly move the soul!

Many singers mistake ad-libbing for simply riffing or doing runs (or melisma) again this is NOT what ad-libbing is.

The actual idea and practice of ad-libbing has both a lyrical and musical foundation and this is what truly separates ad-libbing from riffing or runs/melisma.

“Ad libbing is a very useful musical skill”


Ad-libbing is used in acting to describe individual moments during live theatre when an actor speaks through their character using words not found in the play’s text/lyric.


It is also used to give opportunity to a musician to improvise a melodic line fitting the general structure prescribed by the passage’s written notes or chords. (Amongst other musical discretions).

The ultimate combination

When a singer combines this lyrical and musical permission or freedom, they’re able to combine adding (“Ad”) extra lyrical and musical content at their liberty (“Lib”) to benefit the story of the song and enhance the vocal progression or melody of the song!

Your lyrical additions to the song technically shouldn’t be part of the original text, but rather it should be something that is important to you. Through your own lyrical command of language, comprehension and vocabulary, you construct a thoughtful lyric that sheds new light on a song whilst improvising your melody. Those that do this well, are highly skilled at being able to freestyle lyrics and improvise melodies, so trust me, this is not kids play!

My top tips for learning to ad-lib

1 Study; develop and explore your own musical vocabulary through learning fundamental scales, inversions and intervals that form the framework of your musical choices. (Video 1: Pentatonic scale, inversions and intervals) in this demo we use the major pentatonic scale, which is a fantastic place to start. (Picture of notes for major pentatonic) Start to play around with creating your own interval combinations and using both the root of the scale and its various inversions, explore weaving all of these musical choices together to form your own “vocabulary of vocal movement” VVM. (melody and rhythm) Play around with these melodic movements in both descending and ascending order.

1 Practice lyrical rhyme so that you can develop a freestyle way of creating lyrical content. Rhyming makes it easier to remember and helps you to perceive rhythm and beat, which helps your brain learn best and fast. Start off making up “dummy lyrics” (they don’t have to make sense) then after a period of practice, try to make your rhyming more intelligent and guide it to follow the context of a particular theme, story or emotion.

1 Vamps / music loops (a repeating musical figure or chord progression) are great tools with which you can practice how to execute effective ad-libs, it’s about finding the right moments to perform them and just enjoying trial and error. You can even use an initial lyric from a song you are singing as a kind of ‘lunch pad’ into ad-libbing.

1 Play Play Play… Practice playing with different music and lyrical combinations over a backing track. Work from the low to the high parts of your range and most importantly feel free to make mistakes because it’s how we learn. Hang on did I already kind of say that? Well I’m happy to say it again coz it’s worth repeating, make mistakes often and enjoy that process, you’ll find magic there.

Ad-libs Demo tutorial

In this tutorial video, we take the R&B song “My Life” by Adrian Marcel. I guide Martina, in creating ad-libs. We have decided to just focus on the chorus. Please note ad-libs can be implemented into any style or genre of music. In the next issue I will look at how ad-libs work in different Genres of music.


And girl I don’t mind giving you nothing
Cause in the lowest once of my life
You made a nigga (omitted the word nigga from the demo hahahaha) feel like he’s something …this line can be erased, but it means we have changed the lyric of the song so, not sure how you want to handle that, whether you want readers to know this or not?
We used this instead “you made me feel like I am something”

Girl you’ve changed my life
Loving you is easy it does feel so right
It’s just us against the world
You and me girl
My life, my life, my life
Girl you just that special
And it’s us against the world
You and me girl

Ad-lib coaching Demo 1

Amazing Grace Demo

In this tutorial video, we take an old classic Gospel song that I am pretty sure most singers and non-singers already know. Watch as I guide Martina into using some of the tips I prescribe in this article. Take a song that you like and find a backing track to it or get someone to accompany you and just explore and have fun. I hope you have found this first instalment of this topic useful.

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Joshua Alamu is a professional voice coach with over 15 years experience as a singing teacher in the music and television industry. He has been a voice coach for the TV talent show The Voice UK and is currently vocal coach stars such as Fleur East, Little Mix and JP Cooper. Joshua’s video-enhanced vocal style course Mad About Vocal Style part 1 was launched in 2014 to rave reviews. Joshua is also the co-founder of Ultimate Artists, the UK’s most in-demand artist development camp (eight days of music industry mentorship and artist development).