What is Improvisation?

Improvisation is the root of composition, because when we are composing we experiment with chords, rhythm and melody. This experimentation is the essence of improvisation. It is the place in our imagination where the most triumphant symphony or the humblest ballad begins to take shape. In this way the imagination is like the soil, and our experience and creativity are like the seeds. We start with a small fragment of rhythm or melody, nourish it with rhyme and reason and it grows into what we call music. As the music is shared it takes on a life of its own and travels where it will, inspiring new musicians and influencing experienced artists.

We improvise because we have something to say that can only be said with music. The meaning is there but it is pointless to try and define it. It defines us instead. For anyone who has experienced it, the thrill of making a statement with a melody while playing alone or with a band is unmatched. Everyone has a different way of going about it and that’s what makes the art of improvising so individual, expressive and interesting.

Three Performance Situations

When it comes to performance there are two improvisational situations that should be approached somewhat separately. The first situation concerns improvisation when there is no predetermined structure whatsoever, and the second situation is when there is a general existing or agreed upon structure.

1. Improvising with others when there is no predetermined structure

This often happens when two or more musicians find themselves either jamming together at an informal party, open mic night, or just decide to start playing for any other reason. Usually one musician will begin playing a line or a chord progression and invite the other to follow. Assuming that there is no known chord progression sheet music or existing melody to refer to, the other musician will simply join in. They join while listening carefully to what the others are playing, falling in line with the rhythm and attempting to provide either accompaniment or harmonizing melodies.

In this situation the music is created spontaneously by all the musicians involved. Everyone improvising at the same time. There may be two, three or any number of players but each responds individually to what they are hearing and feeling. They compliment the rhythms and phrases of the others with their own ideas. Musicians take this for granted but for non-musicians who don’t have the background to understand what is happening, this can seem nothing short of miraculous.

For experienced musicians these types of impromptu sessions are like entering a conversation. Just as in conversation when there is no known structure you are free to “say” anything, so you will mainly rely on your ears to figure out things like what key you are in or what the time signature is. This is akin to listening to a conversation before entering it, and determining what the subject is about. Once you understand the topic, just as you do when speaking to another person you will enter a respectful cycle of listening and responding.

The same rules that apply to spoken conversations apply to musical conversations. If you are constantly taking the lead and playing too loudly, the other will feel uncomfortable and the session will break down. If you allow the conversation to take place naturally where each member is allowed to have input and their phrases are complimented and referenced by the others, the session will go smoothly and great music will be made. Likewise, if another member is interested in joining the conversation, the space is created to do so. A summary of the topic may be introduced, a question may be asked, and the conversation continues.

It is striking how the metaphor of conversation is so appropriate to improvising music. Examine the patterns in your everyday interactions with family, friends and coworkers and observe the parallels. Observe these conversations and look for insights you can use in your music. How and why do those conversations either expand or contract, succeed or fail? The same etiquette of spoken conversation applies to musical conversations. You can learn much by observing speech patterns even if you are not taking part in the discussion. Listen to interview shows on TV and radio and see how the members interact. Apply what you learn next time you find yourself improvising with other musicians. You will find much success using this approach.

2. Improvising with others using an existing structure

A more common opportunity for improvisation occurs when you are playing within an existing, structured composition. This is the usual format for songs and structured jam sessions. In this case you have much more up-front information to work with. You may have a written chart or sheet music or you may not, but you are generally aware of the key, the chord changes and how many measures you are required or invited to solo over.

Just as in the above impromptu situation, the success of your performance will depend on applying the entire history of your musical knowledge and experience. This is where you have a chance to really shine as a musician. If the above example can be compared to a conversation, this example can be compared to an informal speech, where you have supporters cheering you on in the form of your band-mates.

Here are the main things to look at when mentally preparing for your solo. You may not have much time (if any) to do this beforehand, so this often needs to happen on the fly.

Know what key you are in

You will want to play close attention to the overall tonality of the music for the section you are soloing in. Sometimes the song may be in one key and the solo section is in another, you don’t want to be taken by surprise because you thought the same chords were being played during the solo section as were played in the verse and chorus. This can also sometimes be true of the time signature; it may change during the solo section as well, so be on the lookout for that.

Know the underlying chord structure

Memorize the chord progression so you can take advantage of all the harmonic possibilities enabled by it. Rather than just picking a scale to use over the entire set of changes, it pays off big to really examine the underlying chords so that you can highlight chord tones with your note choices. This can be the difference between being a good soloist or a great one.

Know where your solo begins and ends

Coming to a party too late is just as awkward as is staying too long; so it is with soloing too. Be sure you know exactly when and where you need to come in and to get out. If you are playing accompanying chords just before the solo you will want to identify which measure you can discontinue those chords. When you finish the solo you will want to know exactly what chord you will return to when you resume your accompaniment. If you are unsure of this you run the risk of ruining your solo by coming in with the wrong chord just as the audience is getting ready to applaud you for your great solo!

Listen to the other instruments

Being aware of what the other instruments are doing is always important but especially so during your solo. For the solo to be effective you want to feed off the energy of the other instruments. Everyone has a different idea about how to do this. I have heard some artists suggest that if the rhythm section is really cooking with fast choppy rhythms that you want to play your solo using long slow lines. Likewise, some suggest that if the music is more stretched out and slower you want to pump it up a little and play faster more exciting lines. This makes sense and you can see it at work if you listen to your favorite soloists.

Another example of how to make the other instruments work for you is to listen to which beats they are accenting and either explicitly join them or directly oppose them. This either creates a strong driving rhythmic pulse or a more playful, funky syncopation. Either way you are adding interest to your solo by deciding where you choose to position your instrument in the beat. You can play in front of the beat, on the beat, or behind the beat. These all create a different feel to your solo. There are endless choices, but choices can only be made if you are always aware what the other instruments are doing.

Advice for All Musical Situations

The following advice is suited for all types of musical situations such as composing, interpreting or improvising. It also applies more directly to solo performers than the above which focused on group situations.

Keep Things Simple

As beginning musicians, we all start by learning the simplest melodies with the simplest rhythms. Whatever it may be, it is simple because we are just beginners. We learn to crawl before we walk, walk before we run, cry before we laugh, and laugh before we speak. This is the nature of growth and evolution. The problems only start when we reach too far and try to take the stairs before we can walk on a level floor. We can’t help it. We want to accelerate learning because we all have a deep desire to achieve and improve. It’s not all bad to take that tumble down the stairs; the bumps and bruises provide many valuable lessons!

There is something about the word “melody” that implies “simple”. Maybe it is because the two words are so often combined; and maybe they are so often combined because that’s what melody is supposed to be. We don’t have any trouble referring to the chorus of our favorite rock ballad as a melody, but we rarely refer to a barrage of sixteenth notes in a heavy metal solo as a melody. Technically speaking both of these are melodies. They are a series of notes, one after another in a rhythmic pulse of time. For a musician interested in learning how to play melodies well, the differences are only a matter of speed and technique. If we reduce the speed of the heavy metal solo we find it has all the same properties as “Brahms’ Lullaby” or “Frere’ Jacques”. What we can learn from this is that structure is not effected by speed or technique.

Tell A Story

Music is sound organized in time. A series of notes floating on the air with no predictability in time would not be considered music. Hang those notes on a rhythm and it begins to take shape. This is easy enough to do, so why do we still struggle? It is because the chosen notes require something more. They need to tell a story.

Everyone likes a good story. We are raised on stories and each of our lives unfolds in a storyline. Actually, each minute, day, month and year of our lives create a story. Regardless of the level of drama, excitement or adventure our time on this planet creates a story nonetheless. The fundamental structure of a melody: how it begins, builds, ascends, climaxes, descends, resolves and ends, are the same as in telling a story. The organizing principles are the same. Stories also begin, build, ascend, descend, climax, resolve and end. This is true whether the song is an instrumental or if the song contains lyrics. Our human nature is reflected in our art; art imitates nature.

Understanding this is just as important to a musician as it it is interesting. It is done consciously or subconsciously by all good musicians and composers. If a melody is constructed without these properties listeners will instinctively not like them. Listeners don’t always know why they don’t like a song but will choose to listen to something else saying merely that it is not to their taste. This is why we can like or dislike so many different styles of music. The structural beauty of a well constructed melody takes precedence over any stylistic tastes or moralistic values we may have. This is because the listener is responding to the underlying structure and emotion in the music, not the content of the lyrics or the appropriateness of the message. Duke Ellington is known to have said, “There are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music.”

Support the Main Theme

When you are learning a song be sure to learn how to play the main melody of the song even if your job is not to play this melody. Everything that happens in a song should happen in a way that naturally supports the main theme. This is especially true of a solo that immediately follows a verse or chorus of the song. The soloists choice of notes and rhythms should flow seamlessly from the main melody and compliment it. It might take it somewhere else, but will always return the listener to the song in a way that prepares them for next part. Doing this consistently will make you a great player and you will have the added benefit of getting along great with your bandmates!

Keep Things Natural

Sometimes melodies are meant only to played instrumentally and other times they are written to be sung. In both cases a good melody consists of phrases that begin and end at intervals that approximate what we find in human speech. For musicians who play wind instruments, this makes perfect sense. You both want and need the phrases to be playable using a single breath. For string instruments and pianists, the need for this is less critical from a physical standpoint but just as critical when it comes to playing and composing natural sounding phrases. I have heard several musicians suggest that a non-wind player player should take note of the length of his phrases and take care to shorten them to fall within the duration of that natural breath. As we breathe so should the music breathe. I think this is excellent advice. An awareness of the organic nature of sound and it’s relation to our natural rhythms can only make us more natural sounding players. The more natural we sound, the more pleasing we are likely to be to our listeners.

Relate Melody to Language

Another thing that works well in keeping you phrases natural sounding is to make up a sentence that mimics the rhythmic pattern of the phrase you are playing. Let’s say your solo has a straight eighth note passage in it that you play as “one and two and three and four and .'” You can make up some words for example that mimic the rhythm such as “get into the syncopation”. When you say that phrase, it naturally come out spoken with an eighth note pattern. This is also a great way to come up with licks as you are improvising, just make up words and phrases in your head and play the syllabic equivalents out in your musical phrases. Scat singers do this with their voices all the time. It works as music because we are so accustomed to these patterns in our everyday speech. Once you start doing this you will begin hearing music even when listening to talk radio! You can take the language/music comparison quite far if you like and include things in your playing like commas, periods, question marks and exclamation points. The popular musical technique of “call and response” is a good example of using question marks in musical phrasing. This is done when a melody seems to hang in the air for a moment, unresolved. The first melodic phrase is posed like question and seems to “call out” for a response to resolve it. The following phrase dose just that and the cycle is repeated.

Go Outside

When improvising or composing a melody it is common practice to strategically include a note or two that is outside the main key signature of the song. This is done to introduce a certain tension in order to resolve it later. For example, if you are primarily composing in C major, you may choose to play the notes G Gb F Eb C to end your phrase. The Gb and the Eb are notes outside of the C major scale but any tension or dissonance that this creates is immediately resolved when you end on the C. This particular example was commonly done in the southern Unites States at the end of the nineteenth century and resulted in the birth of a whole new musical style and culture – the blues. There are countless ways you can “get outside” and you will want to experiment on your own with it. You will soon discover that any note is fair game when playing a melody, as long as it is intentional and done to set up the expected resolution. For that matter you may want to dash all hopes of the listeners expectations and never resolve your melody at all. If this is your intention, go for it!

3. Improvising by yourself in solo situations

In many cases, traditional solo performers choose only to play music already composed by themselves or by others. The artistic expression comes from creatively interpreting an existing piece. Each piece is worked out and rehearsed until every note is polished to perfection. But often a solo performer will choose to include room for improvisation in their performances, believing that it provides the ultimate opportunity for musical self expression.

When improvising a solo situation it is certainly true that “anything goes.” There are no other instruments to follow, no strict tempos, no time limits on the length of the piece, no predetermined arrangements of verse or chorus, no beginning middle or end, no key or time signature, nothing. You are free to play what you wish. But what do you do with all this freedom from constraint? For many musicians this is a frightening thought and they avoid solo improvisation like the plague.

I once met a classical guitarist, Roland Dyens who sets aside a chunk of time in every performance for pure improvisation. Somewhere between the Bach and the Sor and the Tarrega and the Mozart, he will insert a few minutes of his own improvisations. I once attended a master class by him and he explained how everything he had ever learned goes into those performances, but as he is improvising he is aware of none of it. He said it is his favorite part of the performance because he doesn’t know what is going to happen. He explained that it is in situations like this where you need to both rely on, and forget, all your knowledge about music theory, chords, scales and time signatures and just play. This is the time where all of that knowledge comes together and becomes wisdom.

This performer is not alone in his observation that all the machinations of music theory tend to disappear from the mind when entering that zone of pure performance. This is a common observation by musicians of all kinds. This after all is the place where musicians long to be. It is why we practice. We practice so we can forget about how hard it was to study and sweat in order to get to the stage. When we are on the stage and can experience those awesome moments of “just playing”. We know it has all been worth it.

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