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 Resistance to Defining Improvisation
- 3 Problems with Defining Improvisation
- 4 Etymology of the word "Improvisation"
- 5 The Definition of Improvisation
- 5.1 What is the Definition for Improvisation in Jazz?
- 5.2 How jazz improvisations are and are not spontaneous
- 5.3 Evaluation of this definition for improvisation
- 6 The Paradox of Improvisation
- 7 Are There Different Kinds of Improvisations?
- 8 The Theory of Improvisation
- 9 Improvisation and Musical Works
- 10 Technique & Improvisation
- 11 Internet Resources on the Theory of Improvisation
- 12 Internet Resources on Techniques of Improvisation
- 13 The Science of Improvisation
- 14 Improvisation Bibliography
- 15 NOTES
Resistance to Defining Improvisation
Curiously, just like with respect to defining jazz itself, there is sometimes a push back on whether improvisation in jazz can itself be defined. This is curious because it seems either to be a shirking of a philosopher's responsibilities to clarify and motivate foundational concepts such as those for jazz or improvisation and so philosophers should strive to define these things, or the resisters may not have an appropriate appreciation for just what is required for an effective definition to exist. To read more about what it takes to have effective definitions see Ontdef1. What is a definition?.
Problems with Defining Improvisation
It is a fact that the word "improvisation" has many, many different and distinct meanings. Bruce Ellis Benson in his The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music establishes at least eleven different meanings and usages for the term.
To complicate matters, the word "improvisation" can also refer either to the process or to the resulting product of musical improvisations. The process concerns the how and the techniques and skills needed by practicing musicians used to produce and cause the music to exist while the product is the music itself resulting from this process.
The opening paragraph of Wikipedia: Musical improvisation provides several possible definitions for improvisation quoted in green below with POJ commentary in blue. Let's consider their adequacy in turn and see the extreme difficulty when defining improvisation in avoiding words, ideas, and concepts to which no one could object. So, before developing a definition for jazz improvisation in the following sections first consider these five attempts (Wiki-Imrov1 through Wiki-Improv5) for defining or characterizing improvisation quoted from Wikipedia: Musical improvisation.
Wiki-Improv1: “Musical improvisation (also known as musical extemporization) is the creative activity of immediate ("in the moment") musical composition, which combines performance with communication of emotions and instrumental technique as well as spontaneous response to other musicians. (italics not in original)
Notice first that all of the listed items, namely, performance, communication of emotions, instrumental technique, and spontaneous response can all be done when a musician is not improvising so none of the items in the list accounts for the nature of improvisation. The requirement that improvisation be "immediate musical composition" requires one to specify how immediate is immediately and the definition does this by adding the phrase "in the moment." This added clarification of immediate being in the moment and concurrently happening as the music is being performed is crucial for genuine full blown improvisations because the musical production and musical composition need to be concurrent in such a way that the composing causes the content of the performance. If a musical composition has been previously composed so that the music being performed existed prior to its performance and the performer(s) are following the dictates of this prior composition, then one is not producing a (full blown) improvisation during the performance that is following a musical score.
➢ What then must be doing all of the work to get to improvisation itself?
It must be the production of a concurrently composed music made during its performance. These are the crucial features and not the other items listed, which were performance, communication of emotions, instrumental technique, and spontaneous response. Even a spontaneous response that used a pre-determined score or previously prepared sequencing of notes could have been from a spontaneous reaction without having been an improvised spontaneous sequencing of notes.
Wiki-Improv2: “Sometimes musical ideas in improvisation are spontaneous, but may be based on chord changes . . . .” (italics not in original)
Only "sometimes" improvisations are spontaneous seems false, doesn't it? To prove it's falsity consider what would happen if one had a non-spontaneous improvisation. What would make it non-spontaneous? Well, it wouldn't be spontaneous if it was all planned out way ahead of time, but if so, then it would not be an improvisation, which are required to be composed at the very time that one is performing the improvisation.
This passage (Wiki-Improv2) contrasts "musical spontaneity" with "playing based on chord changes." This is rather odd since there is no such contrast. Spontaneity can mean “happening or done in a natural, often sudden way, without being forced.” Cannot this kind of spontaneity occur when an improvising musician is improvising relative to chord changes? Hence, this is a false dichotomy.
Furthermore, spontaneity has several associations that are false regarding how improvising musicians succeed when accomplishing their improvisations. The concept of spontaneity is clearly associated with lack of planning and lack of preparation.
- “Happening naturally, without planning or encouragement.”
- “Spontaneous acts are not planned or arranged, but are done because someone suddenly wants to do them.” 
However, all effective and accomplished jazz improvisers have spent many, many hours (typical expertise requires 10,000 hours of practicing an art) and usual many years, if not decades, in working on perfecting improvisational skills, so it is false that there has been no planning or preparation prior to the improvisation that has been produced 'spontaneously.'
Wiki-Improv3: “One definition is a "performance given extempore without planning or preparation." (italics not in original)
Notice initially that this claim when put so baldfacedly is just false, as was pointed out just above. Still, this definition has a point to it if we qualify what is trying to be correctly expressed. An improvisation from start to finish cannot have been completely planned out as to exactly what notes and chords, etc. are going to be played during an improvisation. A genuine improvisation must have been determined at the time it is being performed as to what one is going to play. It is these decisions concurrent with the performing of what is to be played that cannot have been entirely mapped out significantly prior to the performance (such as the day before) if it is to count as a genuine improvisation.
Wiki-Improv4: “Another definition is to "play or sing (music) extemporaneously, by inventing variations on a melody or creating new melodies, rhythms and harmonies." (italics and bold italics not in original)
This definition of improvisation has perhaps the least objectionable wording, although one can challenge the use of the word "inventing." Do improvisers actually invent the variations?
➢ What does invent mean and imply?
Standard dictionaries, such as Harper-Collins define invent to mean “to think out or produce a new device, process, etc.; originate, as by experiment; devise for the first time.”
Notice that, generally speaking, whatever an improviser plays has not been devised for the very first time. Certainly the notes, etc. have not been devised for the first time, and in many, many instances the musical phrases used by an improviser could easily have been used before by this very improviser, or even by other improvisers. So, improvisers are not really to be credited with inventing the parts of music, but rather in how those parts are sequenced is what is original and new that ends up producing new music as a whole.
Wiki-Improv5: Encyclopaedia Brittanica defines improvisation as "the extemporaneous composition or free performance of a musical passage, usually in a manner conforming to certain stylistic norms but unfettered by the prescriptive features of a specific musical text. Improvisation is often done within (or based on) a pre-existing harmonic framework or chord progression. Improvisation is a major part of some types of 20th-century music, such as blues, jazz, and jazz fusion, in which instrumental performers improvise solos, melody lines and accompaniment parts.” (bold italics not in original)
Even here in the Brittanica passage there are problems. Most improvisations are developed relative to the song in which the improvisation occurs. This means that many improvisations are not "unfettered by the prescriptive features of a musical text," but rather are fettered in the sense that the improvisation relates back to that specific musical score.
Etymology of the word "Improvisation"
- The etymology of the word “improvisation” is revealing as to the nature and purpose of a jazz improvisation.
- The word “improvisation” is compounded of two Latin roots: “in” meaning “not” and “provisus” meaning “foreseen” so an improvisation is something that is unforeseen. The word “improvisation” also relates to cognates in both French (“improviser” meaning “compose or say extemporaneously” from 1786) and from Italian (“improvvisare” meaning “unprepared”). The Latin word “provisus” besides meaning “foreseen” can also mean “provided” so an improvisation is something that is not provided beforehand. This reading is consistent with the contemporary meaning of a jazz improvisation being concurrently composed while performed and not a previously determined musical production.
The Definition of Improvisation
Improvisation is an aspect of everyday life and a significant aspect of artistic creativity and aesthetic productions. An important writer on improvisation and its many aspects and implications is philosopher Philip Alperson who informs us of these facts.
“To improvise is to do or produce something on the spur of the moment. There is a sense in which all human action is improvisatory, and in that sense, all art, as the result of human action, has some improvisatory element.” (bold not in original)
“Beyond that general point, improvisation has a special place in aesthetic theory and in artistic practice. For a start, improvisation may be assigned an originative role . . . in a more fundamental sense . . . [as] the primal core of artistic creative activity. Artists know well the importance of improvisation in their creative endeavors . . . ” (bold not in original)
Improvisation is concurrent composition during a musical performance. Jazz improvisation typically is the process of 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.
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 follow the road, you make a left 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.”
In "Improvisation In The Arts," Aili Bresnahan points out that improvisation has a generalized meaning, as well as a potential process and product ambiguity.
“In a general sense improvisation is spontaneous, unplanned or otherwise free-ranging creativity. Besides denoting an activity improvisation is also used to denote a product of improvisational activity. Thus certain performances or products of artistic activity are referred to as improvisations when they have been produced in a spontaneous, originative way.” (bold not in original)
Paul F. Berliner notes that not only are improvisers permitted to repeat previously used musical elements, but that they are expected to use them.
“There is no objection to musicians borrowing discrete patterns or phrase fragments from other improvisers, however; indeed, it is expected. Many students begin acquiring an expansive collection of improvisational building blocks by extracting those shapes they perceive as discrete components from the larger solos they have already mastered and practicing them as independent figures. They acquire others selectively by studying numerous performances of their idols. For some musicians, this is the entire focus of their early learning programs.”  (bold not in original)
Craig Rustbult points out a flaw in a FreeDictionary.com definition for improvisation were it to be applied to jazz improvisations (amongst others). Jazz improvisations are not disqualified from being improvisations even if a lot of preparations have taken place preparing for the improvisation through extensive practice. It is just that this preparation cannot consist of preparation and then presentation of a pre-composed composition as one's 'improvisation.'
“In the FreeDictionary the first two definitions of improvising are: 1) To invent, compose, or perform with little or no preparation. 2) To play or sing (music) extemporaneously, especially by inventing variations on a melody or creating new melodies in accordance with a set progression of chords.
Definition (1)is sufficient for low-quality unskilled improvisation, and is necessary if you are forced to “do the best you can” to cope with an unexpected situation, although in these situations you typically must do something besides "invent, compose, or perform." High-quality improvisation, in music or in other areas of life, requires long-term preparation to build a solid foundation of skills and experiences. When you are well prepared, you will never have to face an unexpected situation "with little or no preparation," at least in the areas for which you have prepared. Definition (2), by contrast, accurately describes the kind of improvisation that is the focus of this page. (bold not in original)
Definition (2) does have a similar problem to definition (1) depending upon your understanding of the term "extemporaneously." Two out of the first three definitions given for extemporaneous have the same problem as Definition (1) concerning the falsity of lack of preparation.
- 1. Done, spoken, performed, etc., without special advance preparation; impromptu, [as in] an extemporaneous speech.
- 2. Previously planned but delivered with the help of few or no notes, [as in] extemporaneous lectures.
- 3. Speaking or performing with little or no advance preparation. (bold not in original)
So we need to be clear that some extemporaneous activities can be prepared or not.
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.”
What is the Definition for Improvisation in Jazz?
DEFINITION OF IMPROVISATION: Music concurrently composed while performed by its composer.
➢ What requirements does this definition impose on improvisers and what does it permit?
Let's consider each word in the definition and reasons why they are being used.
- (1) "Music" is required for improvisations to occur because this is the type of subject matter, or object/practice, that a musical improviser aims to produce.
- (2) "concurrency" is a necessary condition for genuine improvisations because what must be taking place at the same time is the performance of this improvised composition. To reveal this as required consider some examples where the performance and the composition being performed were not concurrent by the same person.
- Time delay scenarios. Suppose that Fred composes a tune then plays that tune later in time. Is Fred now improvising his own tune? Of course he is not because he is merely playing a pre-composed tune that he had already determined previously so this doesn't count as an improvisation.
The proposed definition for improvisation as used by jazz musicians can be found being used in R. K. Sawyer's scientific article, "Improvisation."
“Improvisation is music or theater performance in which the performers are not following a script or score, but are spontaneously creating their material as it is performed.  (bold and bold italic not in original)
How jazz improvisations are and are not spontaneous
How jazz improvisations are NOT spontaneous
Part of the meaning used when applying the term "spontaneous"' can include a lack of planning. Because improvisers have had to practice and woodshed their instruments and have executed and then analyzed past improvisations this work can count as a form of preparation thereby making future improvisations having had significant past planning in terms of the work put in to master her or his instrument.
“Every mature jazz musician develops a repertory of motives and phrases which he uses in the course of his improvisations. His "spontaneous" performances are actually precom-posed to some extent. Yet the master player will seldom, if ever, repeat a solo verbatim; instead he will continually find new ways to reshape, combine, and phrase his well-practiced ideas. An awareness of these melodic ideas allows the listener to follow a solo with great insight into the creative process taking place.
Each new chorus provided him an opportunity, which he invariably took, to arrange his stock of motives in a different order, or to modify a motive by augmenting or diminishing it, by displacing it metrically, or by adding or subtracting notes. Such was the nature of improvisation to Parker, just as it probably has been to every mature improvising artist in any musical tradition around the world. Certainly in Parker's case it could not have been otherwise; the average tempo of his transcribed pieces is about J = 200. At this tempo, six-and-one-half eighth notes (or thirteen sixteenth notes) occur each second. No one could create totally new phrases at that speed. Many of the components of those phrases must be at the fingertips of the player before he begins if he is to play coherent music. ” </ref>(bold not in original)
How jazz improvisations are INDEED spontaneous
Another aspect of the meaning of spontaneous is that such acts are impromptu and the specific actions resulting in a musical performance had not been previously planned as having that particular musical content in that sequencing so that in this sense the content and structuring given to this particular performance had not been previously planned.
Are jazz improvisations spontaneous or not?
Evaluation of this definition for improvisation
The Paradox of Improvisation
- “Work on the ontology of jazz has centered around the nature of improvisation, particularly the relation between improvisation and composition.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
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 a full blown improvisation (concurrently composed and performed by the same musician) since the music being played note wise was previously determined. No previously composed music when intentionally performed by a musician that it be this prior music qualifies as a full blown improvised performance as the term is used by jazz musicians. There needs to be a distinction made between interpretative choices done by a musician while playing a pre-composed composition versus when a musician is not only making such interpretive choices, but also generating the very musical composition being performed on the spot. This is just not a matter of degree, but of a different kind of musical practice.
This crucial point just made about full blown improvisations not occurring during the performance of a previously composed piece of music when the musicians are intentionally attempting to follow a musical score has been disputed by Carol S. Gould and Kenneth Keaton in their article, "The Essential Role of Improvisation in Musical Performance." Here the authors argue that:
- (1) Improvisation is only a matter of degree, not of kind.
“We submit that jazz and classical performances differ more in degree than in kind.
- (2) Every musical performance, even previously scripted ones where performers faithfully follow a previously composed musical score involves improvisation.
“In this discussion, however, we shall argue that all musical performance, no matter how meticulously interpreted and no matter how specific the inscribed score, requires improvisation. Interpretation is the player's conceptual realization of the musical score in performance, and, by necessity, interpretation involves improvisation.
These are truly two significant claims and their paper attempts to provide reasons and arguments for why anyone should believe them. Let's consider and critique their arguments supporting these two claims.
Clearly, Gould and Keaton are claiming all musical performances involves and requires improvisation in the sense of interpretations of a pre-composed musical score. Does it follow from merely this that all musical performances are also concurrently composing the music that they are performing? Certainly not, and this is clear because Gould and Keaton mention the musical score the musicians are following during their interpretations. Can one be interpreting something that doesn't exist? It would seem not. Therefore jazz musicians when concurrently performing an improvised composition are certainly doing something other than and in addition to merely interpreting a pre-composed score. Hence, Gould and Keaton appear confused when they claim all musical performances are only a matter of degrees of improvisations.
How are Degrees and Kinds Related?
Before it is determined how degrees and kinds are related, consider when things are of different types versus when it is just a matter of degrees. What things come in degrees and what things come as different kinds? Obviously at first one might believe that gold and lead are of different kinds and do not differ from each other by merely degrees. When things come in degrees each particular must have the very same property at all times but the only difference is the amount or scalar feature that varies.
However, there are problems. Using modern day particle accelerators modern day physicists can transform lead into gold through nuclear transmutation by knocking off protons fron the lead to transmute from atomic number 82 (lead) into atomic number 79 (gold), although it is easier to turn gold into lead. Hence, lead can be turned into gold, so is lead just a matter of degrees of being away from becoming or turning into gold? The correct answer is that lead molecules and gold molecules are definitely different types of things because they have their distinctive sets of properties that make the individual molecules of that type. Also, no chemical process can achieve nuclear transmutation so from a chemical point of view lead and gold remain distinct non-transformable kinds. Lead will react to hydrochloric acid (HCl) to form hydrogen, while gold will not proving that the two elements are of different kinds because they don't react chemically in the same way.
Degrees are usually thought of in terms of the amount, level, or extent to which something happens or is present. They are positions on a scale of intensity, amount, or quality. Synonyms for degrees include grade, intensity, quality, caliber, measure, level, or amount, quantity, rate, scale, scope, size, strength, dimension, division, gradation, interval, proportion, range, space, stage, magnitude, or qualification.
“On assumptions that have become the de-facto standard in linguistic semantics, a degree is a relatively impoverished thing. It is simply a representation of measurement, perhaps a point or an interval on an abstract scale. We will argue, building on Landman & Morzycki (2003), that this understanding must be enriched at least enough to construe degrees as a particular species of kind (Carlson 1977b), and that this is part of a larger pattern of parallels between kinds, manners, and degrees.” (bold not in original)
At the end of their paper, Anderson and Morzycki conclude that “a variety of constructions in a variety of languages point to a deep connection between kinds, manners, and degrees, and [they have] articulated a way of thinking about degrees as kinds of states (and following previous work, manners as kinds of events). This enabled us to provide a cross-categorial semantics for both kind modifiers and for their clausal complements, which involve abstraction over degree state-kinds. . . . [and] that the relatively simple ontology of degrees typically assumed should be enriched. (bold not in original)
Carol S. Gould and Kenneth Keaton on Improvisation
To see how far off Gould and Keaton are from a proper way of understanding jazz improvisations from how jazz musicians and the vast majority of jazz theorists use the term consider one of their opening remarks on the subject:
“We offer here an analysis of improvisation that will show how jazz and classical performers alike interpret their pieces and improvise in doing so. The jazz performer may do so to a greater extent; a classical performer may use it more restrictively.”
Two quick points. If a musician claimed to be improvising because she or he were playing a tune strictly to the musical score, then jazz musicians would laugh them out of the room. Second, according to Gould and Keaton, classical musicians improvise so therefore they are improvisers. In fact, the majority of classical musicians cannot improvise where this means simultaneously composing and performing a musical composition, i. e., true improvisations in the fullest sense and not the wimpy version of improvisation Gould and Keaton defend that just amounts to what any musician must accomplish to interpretively play a piece of music according to an antecedently composed score.
It is crystal clear that Gould and Keaton claim that classical performers whenever they are playing classical music are improvising. But what exactly are Gould and Keaton claiming these improvising classical musicians are doing? Are they playing music that they are spontaneously composing while performing it? Of course they are not. If any classical musician were to do this contrary to the musical score they would be fired by their conductor and concert master. Classical musicians are, generally speaking, forbidden to stray away from whatever classical composition has been chosen by the orchestra to be performed.
➢ What then are Gould and Keaton talking about when they claim that all musicians are constantly improvising whenever they play any musical score?
They are not referring to concurrently composed and performed music, rather they are really only talking about choices a musician must make when actually following a musical score. Following somewhat standard musical practice let's call this aspect interpretation of a musical score. Of course, Gould and Keaton are correct that no musical score determines antecedently every aspect of a musical performance so this requires the musicians themselves to make choices about how they will perform a particular piece of music. Nevertheless, these choices could have either been previously thought through or even determined as a result of practicing a particular tune. These interpretative choices do not constitute anything like an entirely new melody or musical work.
This contrasts sharply with true full blown improvisations. If you have already determined how and exactly what you are going to play long beforehand and then you perform these antecedently determined musical passages, then you are immediately disqualified from having improvised in the full standard jazz usage of the term. True full blown improvisations requires not playing a tune where all decisions about what you play have already been determined long beforehand. Full blown improvisations require the improviser to be choosing new notes and chords and musical expressions not antecedently determined to be all played in the order that they are performed.
And it isn't like Gould and Keaton are unfamiliar with a distinction between genuine full blown improvising versus that of improvisational interpretations. They quote Philip Alperson who recognizes this distinction and fully embraces it. Here's what Alperson says is the proper conception of a full blown improvisation.
“It will probably be agreed by all that improvising music, is in some sense, a spontaneous kind of music-making.” (bold not in original)
The authors appear to focus their attention on the wrong concept when critiquing Alperson's account. They find a problem with the idea of improvisations in the full blown sense being conceptually connected to that of needing to be spontaneous.
Helping to correct this misappropriate over-generalization that all music is improvised in the sense of concurrently composing and performing it is Eric F. Clarke at the opening of his article, "Improvisation, Cognition and Education."
“Every performance art contains an element of improvisation since a degree of indeterminacy at some level of the performance, requiring 'invention' by the performer, must always exist.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
From the fact that all musical performance have aspects requiring performers to add elements to the music being performed that requires concurrent decisions as to how to play the music, this need not carry over into what to play when following a musical score. In full blown improvisations the what to play is what the improviser determines. In following a pre-composed composition only aspects of the how to play require some improvisational components, as agreed upon by everybody, including Bruce Ellis Benson and Carol S. Gould and Kenneth Keaton.
Eric F. Clarke explains what he has in mind for a full blown, genuine improvisation.
“At the other end lie those more obviously improvised performances where one or more performers appear before an audience with no written, memorized or otherwise predetermined musical structures, and play music that is assembled, developed and realized in the course of the performance itself.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
Are There Different Kinds of Improvisations?
➢ Do these two areas of improvisation (interpretive improvisations versus compositional improvisations) differ only in matters of degree, or are they different kinds of improvisation? What reasons can be given that they are different kinds?
That numerous scholars have asserted that all improvisations are on the same scale and only differ in matters of degrees of improvisation does not make this claim true.
“By claiming that music making will always contain elements of improvisation, I’m (also) making a “political” statement. What I’m proposing is a shift of perspective in order to make clear that improvisation is “always already” taking place and that thinking within and through these dogmata leaves an important aspect of every music making unattended and concealed, namely that certain decisions must be taken during a performance. In my opinion the opposition you seem to create – between (free) improvisation on the one hand and composed music on the other – needs more refinement: as Bruno Nettl already stated in the mid-1970s, these two concepts should be regarded as poles on a continuum instead of as mutually exclusive quantities, and that’s exactly what I try to do in my writings.” (bold not in original)
There is a lot packed into the above quotation and what has apparently been said is subject to misinterpretation, or at least is in need of qualifications. Start with the first point made that “music making will always contain elements of improvisation.” This needs qualification, if, in fact, interpretative improvisations are of a different kind from compositional interpretations. Just because all music making determined by following a musical score requires musicians still to make their own choices regarding expressive elements when performing such a pre-composed piece of music does not entail that all music making always involves compositional improvisation. It doesn't.
Again, Cobussen asserts that “improvisation is “always already taking place” may be using the term "improvisation" in some third sense differing from interpretive improvisation and compositional improvisation. It remains false that these two types of improvisation are on a continuum precisely because interpretive improvisations are interpreting and embellishing from a pre-composed score while compositional improvisations are not merely embellishing something pre-composed but instead are changing and departing from the specific structural features of a composition and this makes them then different kinds because they have different properties and are not just matters of degree or amount.
Why interpretive improvisations are not on a continuum with compositional improvisations
Giving names of interpretive improvisations versus compositional improvisations renders the question moot as to a possible continuum if these are different kinds of improvisational types. Clearly composing is a different type of activity from interpretation of something already composed. In this latter situation the composition pre-exists prior to any interpretation of it. In compositional improvisations, the composition results from concurrently composing while performing the music. Therefore, these two are different types of activities and not just separated by a matter of degrees.
Would anyone claim that composing music is on a continuum and differs only by degrees with performing music?
Let's think this through. Thelonious Monk can compose music and write down the musical score. Has Monk composed a piece of music? Yes, yes he has. Has that music yet been performed? No, no it hasn't. Where is the continuum to which there could be comparable scalar phenomenon, i.e, every item in the continuum is of the same type, but when it is just a matter of degree then there are differences in quantity, number, or some other scalar feature such as temperature, which does come in degrees.
It doesn't seem reasonable, does it, that embellishing a pre-composed piece of music is on the same continuum as composing a piece of music? Is painting your houses trim a brighter color on a continuum with building the entire house? Certainly not. Similarly then, playing a passage in a higher frequency than originally intended during an interpretive improvisation is not on a continuum with originally composing the entire piece of music. Yet this is precisely what all theorists who claim that interpretive improvisations are on a continuum with compositional improvisations are committed to holding.
Once it is conceded that composing music can occur without performing it, then these are different types of activities. However, it does not mean that the performing and the composing could not be done during the same activity concurrently since this is just what improvising jazz musicians achieve regularly.
One of the reasons and advantages of playing pre-composed music lies precisely in the fact that a musician need not be composing any music; it has already been composed for them. This is not the case with full-blown compositional improvisations where there is no pre-composed music. Riffs and licks by themselves don't count as whole compositions; it is how they are sequenced that makes them into a compositional improvisation.
Suppose we bite the bullet and see if an argument can be provided where performance of a piece of music is on a continuum with the composing music. How would this go?
Well, for a continuum to exist there needs to be a range, often with ends at both ends, although this is not necessary for a continuum to exist. The negative and positive number line has a continuum with no ends at either end like so: . . . -5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5 . . . .
A continuum with ends for example is baldness at one end with a full head of hair at the other end. Or a more ambiguous continuum of poor at one end and rich at the opposite end.
Notice that in the bald/hairy continuum every position on that scale differs by degrees in amount of hair, bald having no or very few hairs, while full head of hair has a lot of hair. Same thing on the poor/rich continuum each item there differs by amounts of money and resources.
➢ So, what does interpretive improvisations versus compositional improvisations share by degrees?
Presumably the answer might concern the amount of improvisation. However, this just won't work and here is why. You can start at the poor end and slowly give a poor person more and more money and resources until he or she slowly goes up the scale from poor to middle class to wealthy and rich. You could take a rich person and make them spend all of the money and resources until he or she is now poor. Similarly, one could slowly lose hair over time and go from having a full head of hair to none and becoming completely bald. Or, if we could grow hair on a bald person we could slowly increase the number of hairs on his or her head until there is a full head of hair.
➢ What could be done by analogy with the rich/poor or bald/hairy continuum to take an interpretive improviser and turn them into a compositional improviser. What is it that the interpretive improviser currently has that by giving them more of that it would turn them into a compositional improviser?
The answer is nothing. No amount of embellishing of how to add growls to a note, or deciding upon tone color, or style of music, etc. will enable a superbly trained interpreter of music when still a poorly trained compositional improviser now to be able to go from one end of the alleged improvising continuum to the other end. It just ain't gonna happen.
CONCLUSION: This argument then establishes the falsity of any claim being made that all musical improvisation is on a continuum and all improvisations merely differ in matters of degrees.
Lee B. Brown, Theodore Gracyk, and David Goldblatt on different kinds of jazz improvisations
In their masterwork in the philosophy of jazz, Jazz & The Philosophy of Art, authors Lee B. Brown, Theodore Gracyk, and David Goldblatt address issues about jazz and improvisation in the third and final part of their book. The Routledge Publisher describes the author's positions in answering what is an improvisation. The Routledge publisher reports that they defend “a pluralistic framework in which distinctive performance intentions distinguish distinctive kinds of jazz improvisation.”
Young and Matheson on expressive versus structural features improvisations
After explaining what they mean by structural features (primarily: melody, harmony, and rhythm), 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)
Suppose it is conceded that idiosyncratic manipulation of the expressive properties of a musical work by a performing musician definitely counts as a form of improvisation. This type of improvising can be called an expressive or interpretive improvisation. However, as we have repeatedly seen, this type of improvisation is not what jazz musicians mean by improvising. Young and Matheson in their article whenever they deny that a performing musician is improvising they have in mind that the musician is not producing a structural features improvisation because they are intending to follow and conform to musical structural features that have antecedently been previously determined. These musicians do not need to be producing a structural features improvisation since they are mirroring ones already written into a musical score. What we might call an improvisation in the full blown sense requires such a structural features improvisation that causes the peculiar structural features of the work she or he is performing. When that happens, Young and Matheson call this an improvisation.
We can see how Young and Matheson clarify their thinking on this point by offering examples of what jazz musicians themselves intend to mean by what they term a (genuine) improvisation. They mean, both Young and Matheson and all jazz musicians, by improvisation a structural features improvisation and not merely an expressive properties one. This is confirmed in the following quotations.
“A few examples can clarify this point. A concert pianist who performs a Beethoven sonata does not improvise. The pianist creates a performance with the structural properties demanded by Beethoven's score. The pianist is not improvising since she or he follows Beethoven's score and, even if a few mistakes creep in, the performance closely approximates what the score demands. Even if the player spontaneously adds rubato or varies the tempo, she or he is not improvising. She or he is not improvising since she or he is simply varying the expressive properties of the work. (The structural properties of the pianist's performance may vary from those specified in the score as a result of mistakes without the performance being an improvisation. 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.”  (bold not in original)
Thus their denial of any improvisation having taken place requires them to mean by improvisation a structural features manipulation and not just manipulating the expressive features of a work. As seen in the next quotation, whenever a structural features manipulation occurs, then Young and Matheson deem this to qualify as an improvisation.
“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.”
Many jazz performances are similarly improvised even though they are not completely spontaneous. For example, when Miles Davis played " Round Midnight" the performance was not completely spontaneous. Davis would begin with a statement of a standard melody. Before he began to perform Davis was aware of this melody and made a successful effort to stale it. To this extent, his performance was not completely spontaneous. After playing a statement of the melody, Davis would play improvised variations. His accompanists knew they were expected to play certain standard chord progressions, over which Davis could improvise. The accompanists could play what jazz musicians call "alternate" chords. For example, a C ninth chord (C. E. G. B-flat. D) is an alternate for a G minor seventh chord (G, B-flat, D. F). Nevertheless, given that they were performing "Round Midnight" rather than another number, only certain chords could be played. The musicians knew what these chords were before they began to play. So their performance was not completely spontaneous, any more than was Davis's. Nevertheless, the performance was improvised. (bold not in original)
Why are Young and Matheson so assured that Davis has been improvising when his improvisation is not entirely spontaneous in that Davis knew a lot about the structural features of the musical work he is performing and furthermore his performance, as well as his accompanists ones, are constrained by structural features around which these musicians are making choices? It is because of this very act of choosing which structural features are going to constitute those of this very performance amongst the relevant choices and chordal constraints that determines that one has produced a structural features improvisation.
They then proceed to explain how the contrast between manipulation of expressive properties does not constitute an improvisation unless it manipulates the structural properties of a musical work. Additionally, they point out a really significant point that requires more emphasis than they put on it in their article, namely, the high relevance of the intentions of the performing musicians. If a musician intends to follow and play a musical score as written then, allowing for mistakes made in attempting to play the structural features already embodied in that musical score, a musician is not improvising these very structural features. The musicians when attempting and generally succeeding in reproducing the structural features of an antecedently existing musical work are not improvising.
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. (bold and bold italic not author's)
The Theory of Improvisation
Four methods of jazz improvisation are melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and motivic improvisations
- ➢ A melodic improvisation can be produced by using alternate notes and new syncopations (different emphases on the off beat) from the original melody so a new melody gets created.
- Melodic improvisation can occur because the melody of a song is only one of many possible similar melodies. Any melody can be modified by producing changes to some of the original notes in the melody by adding or eliminating notes. One possibility is to make wider leaps from from one note to another, or, one can use closely spaced notes in a scale-notes sequence with notes ascending or descending, or (with narrower spacing) a chromatic sequence, or (with wider spacing) a chord-note sequence called an arpeggio. You can use these possibilities, and others, in any blending you want. Notes can be used in creative new combinations.
- Marc Sabatella, in his A Jazz Improvisation Primer, stresses the importance during melodic improvisations and musical development of maintaining a sense of continuity of the musical lines used during the improvisation.
- The contour or shape of the solo often will be modeled on that of a story.
- The structure of a story can start simply (introduction), then “build through a series of smaller peaks to a climax” and often finishes with a coda, which is an independent passage at the end of a composition used to provide a satisfactory close.
- The coda can serve as an extension and/or a re-elaboration of preceding themes or motifs heard during the main melody.
- ➢ Harmonic improvisation occurs by harmonizing with the main melody by including non-melody notes that sound harmonious when played at the same time as the melody notes. Another type of harmonizing can be by providing a bass line, counter-melody, or alternative chord structures simultaneously and/or sequentially using chord progressions and music theory and by experimenting with harmony-and-melody.
- ➢ A harmonic improvisation works by substituting a new melody over the established chord changes and alternate tonal centers.
- ➢ Rhythmic Improvisation occurs by varying rhythmic structure experimenting with different rhythms. One can make some notes shorter or longer as when replacing eighth-notes with dotted-eighths, or with triplets to make it "swing," or play more notes or fewer notes, or “do things” for the on-beats (1 & 3) and off-beats (2 & 4), make the tempo slower or faster or even change the time-structure from 4/4 to 12/8 or 3/4 and so on.
- ➢ Changing aspects of the original arrangement of a tune through embellishments of the original melody or through introducing and then developing a new theme produces a motivic improvisation, as Sonny Rollins, the saxophone player, often performs.
The Nature and Methods of Improvisation: Common Form
- There are two common forms found in much jazz music: the blues form and the AABA song form.
- The blues form typically has twelve bars of music based on three four bar phrases. In its original form, the second phrase repeats the first phrase while the third phrase supplies an answer or response to the first two. It is AAB in form.
- * Because of the simplicity of the basic blues form it is rarely strictly followed in modern jazz playing.
- * The basic blues form uses only three chords: The I chord, the IV chord, and the V chord.
- * Simple blues consisted of three vocal phrases (AAB) and eight musical measures (each four pulses or beats long). Musical measures varied between eight, twelve, and sixteen, but twelve measures became the standard.
- * A standardized blues form consists of twelve measures with the harmonic progression of I, I, I, I7, IV, IV, I, I, V7, V7, I. I. Each roman numeral indicates a chord built on a specific tone in the scale to be played for one measure.
- * One characteristic found in the blues are blue tonalities, notes not found on any one key of the piano. To produce a blue tonality on a piano requires hitting two notes simultaneously, for example, E-flat (black key to the left of E) and E-natural or B-flat and B-natural.
- Marc Sabatella provides a general description with specific examples relating to the playing of an F-blues.
- Marc Sabatella's jazz blog recommends how to address challenges of improvisation and how to improve them through listening practices and feedback loops.
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.
In "Descriptions of Improvisational Thinking by Developing Jazz Improvisers," Martin Norgaard reports on the work of Kratus who has found that learning improvisers pass through seven stages of improvisational mastery to become expert improvisers when the seventh stage gets reached.
“Kratus (1991, 1996) suggested that improvisers pass through seven different stages. In the initial exploratory stage, students develop connections between motor movements and the sounds they produce on an instrument. Moving to the process-oriented stage, occasional melodic patterns emerge within students’ improvisations, showing their thinking is becoming more intentional; patterns are increasingly being stored in working memory for later use. Yet, student focus is still on the process of improvisation without considering the audience. In the product-oriented stage that follows, students become aware of their role in a larger context and begin to shape their improvisations according to what they hear and how it is perceived. According to Kratus (1996), improvisations at this stage “begin to show such characteristics as the use of a consistent tonality or metre, the use of a steady beat, the use of phrases, or references to other musical pieces or stylistic traits.” (p. 33). By the fourth stage, fluid improvisation, students have developed enough technical skill on the instrument that their movements become more automatized. Students reaching the subsequent structural improvisation stage use a variety of strategies to shape the overall structure of their improvisations. In the sixth stage, students move to stylistic improvisation in which they develop a personal voice within a given stylistic constraint. The seventh level, personal improvisation, is rarely reached. Only artist-level performers who develop an innovative style reach this point. Students must pass the previous level to get to the next stage (Kratus, 1996). “Students cannot skip levels, but they may revert to earlier levels” (p. 36) if they are learning new styles or other novel elements. According to Kratus, each level serves as “a doorway to the next” (p. 36) and as “a foundation for later learning” (p. 36). It follows that students on the third product-oriented level would not be able to incorporate stylistic constraints and architectural strategies as they have yet to acquire the technical facility necessary to move to the fluid improvisation level.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
Improvisation and Musical Works
In his article on "Improvisation" in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Philip Alperson expertly characterizes some standard practices of improvising jazz musicians. Alperson stresses that jazz musician's standard musical practices demand variation and constant modifications of the musical material being performed resulting in never playing the same song the same way twice. Although Alperson doesn't mention this, this constant variation results from the inability of improvisers to play the same improvised solo the same way twice. If they could then they would no longer be improvising nor would the musical event or experience be of the same type since freely improvising is a different process than that of copying a previous musical passage.
“It will be helpful to begin by briefly characterizing some of the central improvisational practices in jazz. Many jazz compositions are written with underlying recurrent harmonic structures (often referred to as “changes”) on which the performance is constructed, and they are also usually composed with a melodic line that is played at the beginning and the close of the piece. Although these musical building materials are written down, they are almost never played as written. First, the harmonic structures will be voiced by chordal instruments (e.g., piano, guitar, vibraphone) differently as each interpretation of the piece develops; it is extremely unlikely that these structures will be realized exactly the same way in any two performances (and if they were this would be cause for aesthetic suspicion, not congratulation). Second, the melody (often referred to as the “head” of the piece) will rarely, if ever, be played the same way on any two occasions; the melody as written is itself perennially open to interpretation, and the interpretive license implicitly granted within this musical culture covers a very broad range of possibilities. Thus, msuccessful innovative and creative performances depart substantially from the musical information given in the score in ways idiosyncratic to the individual performer or in ways stylistically demanded by the genre of the piece, so the improvisational aspect of a jazz performance extends into the written as well as the unwritten sections of the piece. The field-wide expectation is that every element of the piece that can be variously expressively interpreted will be; to play just the notes as written would, in a sense, be speaking the wrong language (that is, conforming to conventions external to, and thus inappropriate for, the idiom) within an ensemble.” (bold not in original)
Philip Alperson in "Improvisation" analyzes some of the aesthetic implications of improvisation.
“R. G. Collingwood, although he does not use the term improvisation explicitly, captures the sense of its importance for artistic activity when he opposes the essentially expressive activity he calls “art proper” to “craft,” an activity in which a preconceived result is produced by means of consciously controlled and directed action. Suppose a sculptor were simply playing about with clay, Collingwood asks, and found the clay under his fingers turning into a little dancing man. Would this not be not a work of art because it was done without being planned in advance? To the contrary, Collingwood argues: a planned work may indeed be a work of art, but artistic expression is necessarily an exploratory activity whose end cannot be foreseen and preconceived.” (bold not in original)
“Of course, the extent to which improvisation may involve consciously controlled and directed action or distinctions between means and ends and planning and execution is a complex issue. The originative claim about the role of improvisatory activity with respect to artistic creation thus finds itself taking up issues, not only in philosophical anthropology, but also in psychology, action theory, and the philosophy of mind, not to mention the actual conventions and histories of individual artistic genres and practices.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
“In any case, it is certainly safe to say that improvisation in the arts has seemed to many to feature certain qualities on which the arts have traditionally placed a high premium: invention, transformation, expressive freedom, spontaneity, and creativity. And it is not surprising that improvisational activity has been explicitly highlighted in a wide array of artistic practices, ranging from ancient poetic recitation, medieval minstrelsy, musical performance in the Baroque era, to modern jazz and blues, Beat poetry, rap music, folk music, drama, dance, and stand-up comedy.” (bold not in original)
“Artistic improvisation brings something into being, but what that something is and how we are to understand its mode of becoming are questions of great theoretical interest. Artistic styles and artworks in a variety of arts can be said to be “improvisatory” insofar as certain artistic features (bold brush strokes, frequency of embellishment and repetition, freely varying metrical schemes) might bring this or that aspect of improvised actions to mind. But the most difficult ontological questions are raised by those artistic practices that explicitly feature improvisational activity. In this connection, improvisation can be profitably understood in relation to prevailing views about artistic production, performance, and presentation. In the case of much Western classical music practice of the past two hundred years or so, for example, it is not implausible to distinguish more or less clearly between the stages of composition and performance: one commonly thinks of the composer's activity as concerned with creating at least the defining outlines of the musical work of art and capturing those outlines in the notated score, and one thinks of the performer as presenting and interpreting that work for an audience. In such a framework, much hangs on the notion of a “work,” a reasonably well articulated, enduring thing that, in the minds of many, figures as the main focus of the composer's activity, the performer's interpretive efforts, and the audience's proper object of attention.” (bold not in original)
“Some theorists understand the activity of improvisation, on the other hand, as a spontaneous activity in which the improviser simultaneously practices the interdependent functions of composition and performance, a position that itself raises many interesting questions. It is a point of contention, for example, whether all improvisations bring works into existence. Clearly, some improvisations are more in the spirit of embellishments and can legitimately be seen as interpretations of preexisting works whose themes and patterns provide the organizing structure around which improvisatory activity is focused. In such cases, one can reasonably appreciate improvisations as if they were primarily performances of a work to which the twin values of fidelity and creativity would appropriately apply.” (bold not in original)
“But there is no a priori principle governing either what aspects of a work might or might not be improvised on or how radical improvisations might be within a given domain. Consider the range of improvisational practice in modern jazz, often thought to be the paradigmatic case of improvisatory art. One might have thought that one indispensable feature of jazz has been improvisation around more or less fixed harmonic patterns or structures. It is certainly true that many jazz performances do involve a clear statement of a melodic theme in the context of an explicit or implied harmonic structure followed by improvised choruses on “the changes,” that is, the harmonic structure of the piece. Additionally, some harmonic patterns (those in George Gershwin's “I' ve Got Rhythm,” for example) have become canonical to the point of being regarded virtually as works themselves. But it must also be remembered that jazz musicians have improvised on works precisely by reharmonizing them, often in ways that depart radically from the original. Indeed, the degree of departure from works can become so high that some jazz improvisations “of” previous works cannot be readily identified as such, even by those thoroughly immersed in the tradition. There is also, of course, the existence of “free jazz” in which not only does harmonic patterning cease to be a central structuring principle but so, too, does the normative ideal of obedience to a preexisting work. To further complicate the ontological issue, one might even go so far as to claim that neither improvisations nor performances qualify as works, just insofar as they are activities, events, or processes, whereas artworks, presumably, are enduring, repeatable things.” (bold not in original)
“This last position, however, rests on a notion of a work that seems both conceptually contestable and unduly narrow in the face of artistic practice. A more reasonable position would be that, certainly in the context of artistic improvisation, the notion of a “work” is transformed from something conceived of primarily as a product, as something made, to something more along the lines of a process, of an experience, or of something in the making.” (bold not in original)
“Improvisations themselves can be considered as aesthetic objects in their own right, as objects suitable for aesthetic contemplation, whether the improvisations are live or recorded and whether or not improvisations are presented or understood as deriving from preexisting works. Experienced audiences can and do attend to the formal, expressive, and mimetic features of the sounding structures of musical improvisations, for example, just as they can in the case of performances of previously composed works. Those familiar with the musical culture and traditions in which improvisations are produced know that extraordinarily high levels of complex, subtle, and expressive achievement are possible, a fact to which the improvisations of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, for example, readily attest.” (bold not in original)
“But one must not lose sight of the fact that improvisations also feature productive activity as such. One great attraction of improvised performances is precisely the opportunity to witness, as it were, the shaping activity of the improviser who creates an artistic utterance unmediated by another human being. It is as though we are able to gain access to the artist's mind at the moment of artistic creation. This sense is heightened by the risk and excitement inherent and often evident in spontaneous creative acts and by the innovation, inventiveness, technical agility, and imagination that such activity demands. Improviser and audience share in a sense of immediacy. In improvisation, the rough draft is also necessarily the final product. One has only one go at it, without having the luxury of rewriting, erasing, replaying, and so on. One feels that one's abilities are far more exposed and obvious to the experienced audience than is the case for nonimprovisatory arts. One might well say, then, that in improvisation, as perhaps in no other form of art, are the experience of the artist and that of the audience so thoroughly intermingled. The evaluation of improvisations must be made within this context and it might not be going too far to suggest that, insofar as improvisation in art broadens the notion of the “work,” so does it deepen our understanding of art in general.” (bold not in original)
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 musicians developing and building:
- a musical style
- phrasing control
- intending production of creative designs
- using standard and advanced jazz harmonies to play the language of jazz
- their own library of licks so that one develops a personal language for improvisation
- their perception of intervals and rhythms and interpretative skill
- sequences and variations each time one plays a chromatic progression
Thelonious Monk, even though he had sheet music for all of his tunes, wanted his musicians to learn a new song by listening to it and not just reading it from a chart. We can make this point with this phrase: "Read with your ears."
Ron Gorow on Technique & ImprovisationIn his book, Hearing and Writing Music: Professional Training for Today's Musician, author Ron Gorow
- Of course, effective improvisations require musicians to depend upon their ability to hear music, to remember what has been heard, and then to communicate musically to performers and audience through a performance. The best improvisers reach a level of musical perception where they immediately recognize (and often if musically trained could notate) the sounds they are hearing.
- Good improvisers are already good musicians. Good musicians know the fundamentals of music by knowing how to put notes on a staff, can play in any key, and have a good ear. They know what they are hearing and how to notate it. They have a basic knowledge of orchestration, as well as common instruments and their ranges and transpositions.
Dave Morris on The Way of Improvisation
Improviser and storyteller Dave Morris teaches seven steps to improvising and how they apply to life in his TeDX talk in 2011, "The Way of Improvisation." His principles or guidelines apply to jazz improvisation as well.
Morris defines improvisation as the "act or art of improvising, including being spontaneous and making stuff up." He adds that it is not "even a thing" because it is a process—"a way to make something."
In his talk, Morris presents seven skills that are used in the way of improvising.
Here are his skill sets listed below for successful solo or group improvisatory interactions:
- 🔶 The first skill is (1) play--"engaging in something just because you like to do it and it is fun to do it." Play is engaging in something for the joy of it and being present in the moment.
- 🔶 Guideline number (2) is let yourself fail, which does not mean just fail. Rather it is to accept and be OK with failing should it happen. It is the fear of failure that prevents one from being in the moment. Failing does not make you a failure. If failure occurs, then just start again.
- 🔶 Rule (4) Say "Yes"
- 🔶 Rule (5) Say "Yes And"
- 🔶 Rule (5) Say "Yes And"
- 🔶 Rule (6) Play the Game
- 🔶 Rule (6) Play the Game
- 🔶 Rule (7) Relax and Enjoy it
- 🔶 Rule (7) Relax and Enjoy it
Of course, there can be counter-examples to any one of the principles because they are only guidelines in the first place.
Suppose Fred and Djharma are good at improvisation and know all of the rules and have produced effective improvisational stage productions with each other many, many times. One of the rules though is to always say "Yes." It is the opposite of a rule that would recommend repeatedly saying "No." So one day Fred, being bored, decides he's not going to follow the "say Yes rule" instead he's just going to follow the "say No rule" that's not really a rule so anytime you want to you can still say Yes.
Their scene starts off with Fred saying No's to everything. First, and then after the other guy Dhjarma gets flummoxed. Next, he starts to figure out maybe I still have something to work with here. So he starts asking questions like "oh I understand now" you have said No, many many times now correct?
Djharma being clever and able to improvise tries this series of questions and answers. "So, have you recently several times answered my questions by saying No? Fred's response: No.
D: Did you just now say No? F: No.
D: Can you hear what I am saying? F: No.
D: Geez, i'm getting stumped here.
D: OK, just a couple more questions, then I can give up. F: No.
But that wasn't a question. F: Yes.
D: Is it that you have been taken over by a negative talking alien? F: No.
D: In this alien culture No means yes and Yes means No? F: Yes, that is what I have been saying all along.
D: OK, so now I am finally starting to understand it? You have been taken over by an alien creature who controls your responses but they are negatively inclined and so they say No a lot? F: No.
F: What just a minute I feel like I'm coming out of some kind of trance or something. Did you notice anything funny about me? D: No.
End scene. Djharma has been taken over by the negative aliens.
One of the actors did not follow the Yes rule. They still could successfully improvise. The rules are only guidelines for possible and greater probability of success.
Zach Beattie Guidelines for "The Art of Improvisation"
At his TEDxCoMo talk, "The Art of Improvisation," held April 6, 2013 at the historic Missouri Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, Zach Beattie provides several guideline rules for producing effective collaborative improvisations.
Here are his guidelines:
- Rule (1) Everybody you are improvising with is a genius. Treat your partners ideas as if they were brilliant and amazing and make each person look like a genius. Equivalent in some regards to the "Say "Yes"" rule. This means there are no stupid ideas and whatever anyone says is true and you need to accept what they are saying completely and go with the flow of the ideas. Don't challenge the idea. "Treat your partners such that everything they say or do is amazing and they are a genius." You should not say "No" to someone and deny their ideas. Make all participants comfortable and confident that their ideas will get supported during this improvisational process. Treat each person's ideas as well as your own as important. Validate your collaborator's ideas and put everyone into an open receptive space.
- Rule (2) "Yes, and . . . ." In addition to accepting anyone's ideas one contributes something positive in return, so this rule says to add more things to what has gone before and continue to build something. It allows conversation to flow and ideas to move forward.
- Rule (3) "Play." Equivalent to the rule to be in the moment. Opening yourself up to be vulnerable and do not be so judgmental, but enjoy the activity for its own sake and be creative in the moment. Also, go and have fun with it, whatever it is. Do not be inhibited or concerned about what others will think about these activities. Be present and listen to your partners. "The excitement lies in the uncertainty of what comes next."
- Rule (4) "Let yourself fail." Do not take the attitude that you are not creative or that you cannot do this improvising stuff. Have creative confidence because you are willing to let yourself fail. Try to catch yourself when you are filtering and stifling your own ideas and let yourself try out those ideas.
- Rule (5) "Consider ideas that are unconventional." Humans are comfortable with established conventions and planned processes. They are uncomfortable with unconventional actions. Do not filter out ideas merely because they are non-standard or unconventional.
Eric Dolphy on improvisation
“In the case of myself, I had to find something what to do. Not to say in the sense of finding something to do just to exhibit my technique, but to find something to do to enhance some kind of musical, make some kind of musical sense, and I found that within my playing that I could play notes, not at first, because at first I couldn't hear these notes, so I wouldn't play them. But as I play more and more I hear more notes to play against the more common chord progressions. And a lot of people say they're wrong. Well, I can't say they're right, and I can't say they're wrong. To my hearing, they're exactly correct. For my hearing I'm right, and . . . [nothing further was said].” (bold not in original)
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.
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.
- World of Jazz Improvisation. Articles in a syllabus for the series of Jazz Improvisation courses MUS 331, MUS 332 and MUS 530 at the University of Wisconsin Madison with Professor Joan Wildman.
- JazzAdvice.com shows 24 improvisation techniques for creating melodic lines at fast tempos taken directly from the solos of the music’s greatest jazz improvisers on Ray Noble's tune "Cherokee."
- "How to Improvise Jazz Melodies," Bob Keller, Harvey Mudd College, January 2007, Revised 4 September 2012.
- "Music Improvisation using Creativity + Music Theory: The Art & Science of Making Your Own Music!" Dr. Craig Rusbult explains useful principles for musical improvisation, for improving creativity, using music theory and the nature and use of chord progressions.
- "Ten Steps to Improvise Jazz," by Oliver Prehn.
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
- The University of Texas at Austin Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music Center for Music Learning "Cognition in Jazz Improvisation" website
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Alperson, Philip. “On Musical Improvisation”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 43, no. 1 (1984): 17–29. DOI:10.2307/430189
__________ (ed.). What is Music? An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music. New York: Haven, 1987.
__________. “Improvisation: An Overview”. Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Volume 1). Michael Kelly (ed.). New York: Oxford University Press (1998): 478–79.
__________. “Facing the Music: Voices from the Margins”. Topoi 28, no. 2 (2009): 91–96. DOI:10.1007/s11245-009-9052-9.
Valone, James J. “Musical Improvisation as Interpretive Activity.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 44, no. 2 (1985): 193–94. DOI:10.2307/430522.
Brown, Lee B.. “Musical Works, Improvisation, and the Principle of Continuity”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54, no. 4 (2006): 353–69. DOI:10.2307/431917.
__________. “‘Feeling My Way’: Jazz Improvisation and its Vicissitudes—A Plea for Imperfection”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58, no. 2 (2000): 113–23. DOI:10.2307/432090.
__________. “Do Higher-Order Music Ontologies Rest on a Mistake?”. British Journal of Aesthetics 51, no. 2 (2001): 169–84. DOI:10.1093/aesthj/ayr002.
__________. “Further Doubts about Higher-Order Ontology: Reply to Andrew Kania”. British Journal of Aesthetics 52, no. 1 (2012): 103–06. DOI:10.1093/aesthj/ayr045.
Hagberg, Garry L. “Improvisation: Jazz Improvisation”. Encyclopedia of Aesthetics Volume 1. Michael Kelly (ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, (1998): 479–82.
__________. “On Representing Jazz: An Art Form in Need of Understanding”. Philosophy and Literature 26, no. 1 (2002): 188–98. DOI:10.1353/phl.2002.0013.
__________. “Jazz Improvisation and Ethical Interaction: A Sketch of the Connections”. Art and Ethical Criticism. Garry L. Hagberg (ed.). (2008): 259–85.
Gould, Carol & Kenneth Keaton. “The Essential Role of Improvisation in Musical Performance”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58, no. 2 (2000): 143–48. DOI:10.2307/432093.
Sterritt, David. “Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58, no. 2 (2000): 163–72. DOI:10.2307/432095.
Young, James O. & Carl Matheson. “The Metaphysics of Jazz”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58, no. 2 (2000): 125–34. DOI:10.2307/432091.
Bresnahan, Aili. “Improvisation in the Arts”. Philosophy Compass 10, no. 9 (2015): 573–82. DOI:10.1111/phc3.12251.
Love, Stefan Caris. “The Jazz Solo as Virtuous Act”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 74, no. 1 (2016): 61–74.
Magnus, P. D.. “Kind of Borrowed, Kind of Blue”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 74, no. 2 (2016): 179–85.
Gould, Carol & Kenneth Keaton. “The Essential Role of Improvisation in Musical Performance”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58, no. 2 (2000): 143–48. DOI:10.2307/432093.
“This has been a useful reminder that not all music is the performance of pre-composed works (Wolterstorff 1987, pp. 115–29). However, it must be noted that improvisation can occur within the context of such a work, as in the performance of an improvised cadenza in a classical concerto. Some have argued that there is not as significant a distinction between improvisation and composition as is usually thought (Alperson 1984). Others have argued that all performance requires improvisation (Gould & Keaton 2000). Yet others restrict the possibility of improvisation to certain kinds of musical properties, such as “structural” rather than “expressive” ones (Young & Matheson 2000). However, the arguments are not compelling. Usually they turn on equivocal use of terms such as “composition” and “performance”, or beg the question by defining improvisation in terms of deviation from a score or variation of a limited set of “expressive” properties. (bold not in original)
- Wikipedia on musical improvisation.
- This is a quotation from Gorow, p. 212, quoted in Wikipedia on musical improvisation.
- Cambridge Dictionary definition of spontaneous.
- Cambridge Dictionary definition of spontaneous.
- Collins Dictionary definition of spontaneous.
- This is a quotation from the Free Dictionary on "Improvisation."
- Quoted at Wikipedia on musical improvisation.
- "Improvisation" by Philip Alperson, at Oxford Art Online, first paragraph.
- "Improvisation" by Philip Alperson, at Oxford Art Online, second and third paragraphs.
- The Piano, King Palmer, London: NTC Publishing Group, 1975 and again by McGraw-Hill Publishing, ISBN: 0340268336 (ISBN13: 9780340268339), (151pages), p. 109.
- "Three Approaches to Defining Jazz," Mark C. Gridley, Robert Markham, and Robert Hoff, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 4, (pp. 513-531), 1989, published by Oxford University Press, p. 519. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/741817.
- See Philip Alperson, "On Musical Improvisation," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 43, no. 1, Fall/Autumn 1984, p. 19. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/430189.
- "Improvisation In The Arts," Aili Bresnahan, Philosophy Compass, 10 (9), p. 574.
- Thinking in Jazz, Paul F. Berliner, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 101.
- "Music Improvisation using Creativity + Music Theory: The Art & Science of Making Your Own Music!"
- Dictionary.com definition of extemporaneous.
- "The Metaphysics of Jazz," James O. Young and Carl Matheson, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58:2, Spring 2000, p. 127.
- "Improvisation," R.K. Sawyer, Encyclopedia of Creativity, Second Edition, 2011, pp. 647-652.
- "Philosophy of Music," Andrew Kania, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2017 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
- "The Essential Role of Improvisation in Musical Performance," Carol S. Gould and Kenneth Keaton, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Arts (Spring, 2000), p. 143. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/432093.
- Wikipedia: Nuclear transmutation states under the subheadings of "History > Modern Physics" that lead transmutation into gold is an easier task than the reverse: “It transpired that, under true nuclear transmutation, it is far easier to turn gold into lead than the reverse reaction, which was the one the alchemists had ardently pursued. Nuclear experiments have successfully transmuted lead into gold, but the expense far exceeds any gain. It would be easier to convert lead into gold via neutron capture and beta decay by leaving lead in a nuclear reactor for a long period of time.”
- Thoughtco's "How to Turn Lead Into Gold: Is Alchemy Real?"on turning lead into gold.
- "Degrees As Kinds," Curt Anderson and Martin Morzycki, November 8, 2013, p. 2.
- "Degrees As Kinds," Curt Anderson and Martin Morzycki, November 8, 2013, p. 40.
- "On Musical Improvisation," Philip Alperson, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 43, 1984, pp. 17-29 and "Improvisation: An Overview," in Michael Kelly (ed.), Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Vol. 2, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 478-479.
- "Improvisation, Cognition and Education," Eric F. Clarke, Companion To Contemporary Musical Thought, edited by John Paynter, Tim Howell, Richard Orion, and Peter Seymour, London and New York: Routledge Press, 1992, Vol. 2, p. 787.
- "Dialogue on Improvisation, Composition, and Performance: On Singularity, Complexity, and Context," Letters from Marcel Cobussen and Rogério Costa, quotation written by Marcel Cobussen on January 12, 2015 at 02:32 pm, p. 154.
- Routledge publications, third paragraph, last sentence.
- "The Metaphysics of Jazz," James O. Young and Carl Matheson, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Arts, Spring, 2000, p. 127.
- "Melodic Structure in Bill Evans’s 1959 “Autumn Leaves”" Steven Strunk, Journal of Jazz Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 2016, p. 68.
- "Descriptions of Improvisational Thinking by Developing Jazz Improvisers," Martin Norgaard, International Journal of Music Education, 2016, pp. 1–13. DOI: 10.1177/0255761416659512.
- "Improvisation,"Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 2nd ed., edited by Michael Kelly, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print ISBN-13: 9780199747108 Published online: 2014 Current Online Version: 2014 eISBN: 9780199747115.
- "Philosophy of Music," Andrew Kania, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2017 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).