The Many Forms of Improvisation

Musical improvisation is so much more than just making up a melody that is harmonically and stylistically appropriate for a jazz chart.

Musical improvisation is the making and executing of musical choices simultaneously. It is not just a single skill or activity; it can take many forms. Musicians can use improvisation for play, performance, composition, or understanding.

Improvisation for play means improvising for the musician’s self, their own enjoyment or exploration.

Improvisation for performance means improvising for an audience. This could include making an audio recording.

Improvisation for composition means improvising for the generation of original musical material with the intention of later refining it into a musical composition.

Improvisation for understanding means using improvisation as a tool for developing other skills. For example, practicing the difference between staccato and legato through improvisation.

Similarly, improvisation can take many forms:

You can improvise alone or jam with others.

You can improvise in your head, on an acoustic instrument, or a digital one.

You can improvise freely or within constraints.

You can improvise rhythm, melody, or timbre.

You can improvise a harmony to go along with an existing melody.

You can improvise an interpretation by making choices within the constraints of a composition.

You can improvise articulations, phrasings, lyrics, or when to breath.

You can improvise a realization of a bass line or chord changes.

And you can trade improvisations with another improviser, taking turns responding to each other’s ideas.

In other words, musical improvisation is a huge category of musical skills. There are many situations in which a musician might improvise, and experience with one may or may not carry over to another. And how we teach it depends on which subset of skills we want our students to develop. The path toward developing improvisation pedagogy, separate from jazz pedagogy, begins with understanding that improvisation is so much more than just jazz solos.


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