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 The Definition of Improvisation
- 5 The Paradox of Improvisation
- 6 The Theory of Improvisation
- 7 Improvisation and Musical Works
- 8 Internet Resources on the Theory of Improvisation
- 9 Technique & Improvisation
- 10 The Science of Improvisation
- 11 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 on musical improvisation provides several possible definitions for improvisation. Let's consider their adequacy in turn before developing a definition for jazz improvisation in the section that follows.
“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.
“Sometimes musical ideas in improvisation are spontaneous, but may be based on chord changes in classical music, and many other kinds of music.” This is a quotation from Gorow, p. 212.
“One definition is a "performance given extempore without planning or preparation." This is a quotation from the Free Dictionary on "Improvisation".
“Another definition is to "play or sing (music) extemporaneously, by inventing variations on a melody or creating new melodies, rhythms and harmonies."
“Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it 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 not in original)
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 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.
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)
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 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)
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
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
Improvisation and Musical Works
In his article on "Improvisation" at Oxford Reference, 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 partially 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 Oxford Reference "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)
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 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."
In his book, Hearing and Writing Music: Professional Training for Today's Musician, author Ron Gorow covers some of the key features required of effective musicians and improvisers as summarized in the next two paragraphs below.
- 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.
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 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."
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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- "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.
- "The Metaphysics of Jazz," 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”" Steven Strunk, Journal of Jazz Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 2016, p. 68.