What Exactly is Improvisation?

What exactly is improvisation? I’ve been obsessed with this question for many years, not just what it is but how do we go about learning and teaching it? Many musicians are confused about what improvisation is – one of the biggest misconceptions is that improvising is playing something that has never been played before. While that may be true for the entire improvisation (say during a 5 minute song) as a whole, it is definitely not true for parts of the improvisation. This is especially true for more technical genres such as baroque and jazz which require a certain amount of technical facility. If you don’t believe this try improvising over Giant Steps at 300 bpm, especially if you’ve never seen that chord progression before.

In jazz you often play solos over fixed chord progressions. If you are advanced enough to reharmonize chords on the fly you will be improvising even more so, but often you’re choosing paths to take in your progressions such as cycle of fourths, descending minor thirds, tritone subs and ascending diatonic progressions, to name a few. And when you play you often recall things that you liked, that you know sound good.

So when we improvise both chords and melody such as in baroque improvisation we:
-can choose what key to start in
-choose where to go diatonically from the root (IV, V, cycle of fourths, etc)
-choose which key to modulate to (if any), and this can be done repeatedly
-choose a melody
-choose when to play the melody in the bass or upper voices
-choose how long to play and when to end the improvisation

Sure I could start to record myself, play some chords, get a repeated loop going and then improvise things over the chords. This could entirely be improvised, although bits and pieces of melodies, patterns, arpeggios could’ve been practiced before. But for challenging jazz progressions, or baroque improvisation you often need to have practiced certain things ahead of time – like having a moving bass line while the upper voice is stationary, playing difficult counterpoint lines, working out how to change keys effectively and so on.

It is clear that just playing existing pieces will not make you a good improvisor (just look at all the classical musicians who can’t improvise and probably don’t understand what they are playing other than the initial key of the piece). It is also clear that just grabbing an instrument and making stuff up is not what we are after as it is usually too unstructured, especially for specific, difficult genres.

It is also clear that learning scales, triads and arpeggios all over the neck is not enough to make you a good improvisor either. But you do need a certain amount of knowledge so you are not just ‘cutting and pasting’ a series of phrases together. So a certain amount of improvisation is using our ability to recall previously practiced ideas.

Probably the most effective way to learn to improvise is to learn short phrases and understand how they work, whether they are single note solos, or baroque style chord melodies. Make up variations. So you might learn a phrase that is a I IV V I progression for example. Then you need to understand how to modulate to other keys. So you might go from the I chord and try to modulate to the relative minor (C to Am), or the dominant key (C to G) or the subdominant key (eg. from Dm to Gm). So for any key you can decide when to modulate and where to go. Within each key you can learn I IV V I progressions or use the cycle of fourths for example. This is surely enough to get you going!

Please check out my Baroque Improvisation Course if you’re interested learning more of this.

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