Ontimpr1. What is improvisation?
“The genius of our country [the United States] is improvisation and Jazz reflects that. It's our great contribution to the arts.”
- 1 Discussion
- 2 The Nature and Methods of Jazz Improvisation
- 3 NOTES
The Nature and Methods of Jazz Improvisation
The Definition of Improvisation
Improvisation is spontaneous composition. Jazz improvisation typically is the process of spontaneously creating fresh melodies over the continuously repeating cycle of chord changes in a song. An effective and standard improvisation typically bases itself off of the established musical systems of a pre-composed tune, but introduces new elements thereby producing thematically appropriate musical variety. While often related to the melody, improvisations can also deviate from it and musicians may improvise on modes, chord or rhythm changes, or may even play totally freely.
King Palmer in his book, The Piano (London: NTC Publishing Group, 1975), defines improvisation “as music which is created as it is performed, without previous preparation or detailed notation.” (p.109) One must be careful here not to place too much weight upon the notion of "without previous preparation." An improvising jazz musician has obviously done a lot of studying and practicing of playing music and this certainly can count as preparations for improvising. Hence, what Palmer means is that the improvised solo has been produced spontaneously, but it need not have been produced without any preparation concerning the performance of the solo.
Dictionaries give as a synonym for "spontaneous" that of "unpremeditated." To produce music spontaneously means not to repeat precisely during one's improvised solo a previously decided section of music. The decisions as to what to play must be made concurrently to the playing for it to count as a legitimate improvisation. Just as when you are driving a car there is a lot of more or less simultaneous analysis, evaluations, and judgments being made and at different levels of generalities and organization. As you drive, you know your ultimate destination, you judge the situation is currently safe, you see the tree, you make. Right turn. The mental processing to accomplish these things is not instantaneous, but it is still accomplished with remarkable speed and in seconds and microseconds. This is what is meant by concurrent and the jazz improviser is no different. She knows the song beforehand, knows the chord changes and melody, knows where the bass player and drummer are going/doing, and then improvises relative to all of these factors that the brain is monitoring, evaluating, and judging.
Playing spontaneously does not require that what one plays has never been played before by the performer or that its parts have never been practiced. All that is required for the improvisation to count as legitimate is that the decisions as to what to play now are made and committed to at the moment of the musical performance and have not been previously decided upon.
Mark C. Gridley (and his co-authors, Robert Markham and Robert Hoff) agree with the assessment that improvisers are permitted to repeat previously used patterns during an improvisation because “it would be unfair to expect that jazz musicians create not only fresh "paragraphs" and "sentences," but even the "phrases" and "words" they use.” They conclude that “the frequent recurrence of standard patterns should not by itself DISQUALIFY a passage as [an] improvisation” . . . and “an improvisation CAN be constructed from pre-existing elements, only IF these elements are REORGANIZED, and they are reorganized at the very moment they are performed.” ("Three Approaches to Defining Jazz," Oxford University Press, 1989)
Also in agreement that improvisation in jazz need not be entirely and completely spontaneous are Young and Matheson in their "The Metaphysics of Jazz." They write that “improvisation has sometimes been defined as completely spontaneous performance”, but that this is a bad definition and conception for jazz improvisations since it is both false and incorrectly conceptualized. Their argument is that improvisations need not and are not completely spontaneous.
“However, a definition of improvisation that is completely spontaneous is far too restrictive. The harpsichordist who realizes a figured bass is not, on this account, improvising. Neither is the violinist who extemporaneously performs a cadenza that incorporates a theme from the concerto she or he is performing. Most importantly, for present purposes, most jazz performances are not improvisations in the sense of being completely spontaneous.”
What do Young and Matheson propose as a richer, fuller conception of the nature of actual jazz improvisations?
“We suggest that an improvised performance is one in which the structural properties of a performance are not completely determined by decisions made prior to the time of performance.”
The Paradox of Improvisation
If any non-scripted musical event counted as an improvisation, then every aspect of music would qualify as being improvisatory. This conclusion is false because when a composition is played with no changes from the musical score then this by definition cannot count as having been an improvisation since the music being played note wise was previously determined. No previously composed music when performed qualifies as having been improvised.
After explaining what they mean by structural features (primarily: melody, harmony, and length), Young and Matheson contrast these structural features with what they term expressive features.
A structural property is to be understood in contrast to an expressive or interpretive property. The expressive properties of a performance include tempo, the use of rubato, dynamics, and so on. We believe that the line between expressive and structural properties is a fuzzy one, but it must be drawn if we are to avoid the conclusion that virtually every musical performance involves improvisation. (Bold not author's)
Such inadvertent departures do not make a performance an improvisation since the performer was attempting to follow a score. Improvisation occurs only when performers do not attempt to make the structural properties of a work conform to a score.) A performer who spontaneously chooses structural properties is improvising. For example, a lutenist who extemporises a repeat while playing a pavan by Dowland is improvising. The structural properties of the lutenist' s performance were not completely determined by an attempt to follow a score. Decisions she or he made while playing affected more than just the expressive properties of the performance. Still, the performance was not completely spontaneous. Given that the lutenist is performing, say, the Lachrimae Pavan, the varied repeat cannot assume just any form. This example demonstrates that an improvisation need not be completely spontaneous.
The Theory of Improvisation
Melodic versus harmonic improvisations.
“An improvised performance differs from a composition in that it occurs in real time, with no opportunity for the performer to go back and revise. The problems of maintaining interest and balance, of creating a sense of inevitability and forward motion are constant for the improviser. An analysis may choose to look at a transcription of a performance as if it were a composed score, moving backward and forward through it, collecting items for comparison that originally came into being for different local reasons. In contrast, the present study will move through the performance from beginning to end, just as Evans did, in an attempt to follow his ongoing solutions to the problems of "composing in the moment."” 
- See also Chapter 8 "Composing In The Moment" of Paul F. Berliner's Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
trio simultaneous improvisation. . . . transitional development passages
Internet Resources on the Theory of Improvisation
- "Exploding the Narrative in Jazz Improvisation" by Vijay Iyer. Iyer asks how an improvised solo can convey meaning or “tell a story.” He develops a theory of jazz improvisation around his idea of hearing the body. To Iyer, the effectiveness of improvisation, particularly its rhythmic aspect, depends on an awareness by producers and listeners of the physical actions involved and their situation within a shared social environment, which creates a cascade of meaningful events in an “exploded” (i.e., not conventionally linear) narrative.
- "On Musical Improvisation" by Philip Alperson, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 17-29. Published by Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Society for Aesthetics.
- "The Ends of Improvisation," William Day, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 68, No. 3 (SUMMER 2010), pp. 291-296. Published by Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40793271.
Technique & Improvisation
When learning how to produce an effective jazz improvisation what does a musician need to know to produce effective and pleasing improvisations?
When learning how to construct a good melodic jazz improvisation ideally one should already have good technical skills with one's musical instrument. Furthermore, one needs to have memorized various musical patterns and have a solid grasp as to which notes work well in particular contexts and which to generally speaking avoid. Effective improvisations need to be about more than merely about technique, memorization of musical patterns, and playing the right notes.
What else is relevant for producing good improvisations?
Effective improvisations have the musician developing:
- a musical style
- phrasing control
- intending production of creative designs
- using standard and advanced jazz harmonies to play the language of jazz
Internet Resources on Techniques of Improvisation
- A Jazz Improvisation Primer (1992) by Marc Sabatella
- "Constructive Elements in Jazz Improvisation" by Frank Tirro, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer, 1974), pp. 285-305, published by the University of California Press on behalf of the American Musicological Society Stable. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/830561.
- "An Approach to Improvising Over Chord Changes"
- "The Case for Improvisational Melodic Structures: Creating Within Context" by Brian J. Kane at JazzPath.com
The Science of Improvisation
- "From 'Projective Apprehension' to 'Proprio-Sentience': Embodied AND Distributed Cognition During Jazz Improvisation" by Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg
- Workshop: Neuroscience Research on Top-Down and Bottom-up Styles of Cognition During Jazz Improvisation in Light of Recent Theoretical Research on "Cognitive Capitalism" by Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg
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- "The Metaphysics of Jazz," by James O. Young and Carl Matheson, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58:2, Spring 2000, p. 127.
- "Melodic Structure in Bill Evans’s 1959 “Autumn Leaves”" by Steven Strunk, Journal of Jazz Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 2016, p. 68.