Developing musical creativity: Improvisation

Musical creativity: what is it? How does it work? How is it learned? And how should it be developed?

Musical creativity is an inclusive term for all forms of creating original music. The two primary and distinct skills of musical creativity are improvisation and design. Improvisation is the process of making up music as you go, and design is the process of iterating until a desired piece of music is discovered. The study of musical creativity should focus on both improvisation and design, and the practice of one strengthens the other.

Improvisations may fall anywhere on a spectrum from structured to free. Free improvisation is the skill of improvising music with no extrinsic constraints, and structured improvisation is the skill of improvising within extrinsic constraints.

Improvisations may also fall anywhere on a spectrum from random to realized. Random improvisation refers to making sounds at random. Realized improvisation is the skill of being able to imagine music in your mind and perfectly realize it on an instrument at the same time. In practice, realized improvisation is often an imperfect translation of music in the mind, leading to happy accidents, that is, interesting musical ideas stumbled upon by accident.

If the playing of anything is allowed, what makes one improviser more skilled than another? What is the purpose of improvisation development?

What you can improvise is constrained by what you can play, what you can imagine, and what you can realize. The purpose of improvisation development is to reduce those barriers.

The first phase of this development is focused on becoming comfortable with free improvisation. This is not technically difficult. Most children learn to do this. But as we age, we often stop practicing the skill and become self-conscious about trying.

The primary value of structured improvisation is being able to improvise idiomatically within musical cultures such as jazz. That is not my objective for developing musical creativity. Rather, I am interested in teaching students to improvise whatever they want, by themselves or with others, and as an ends or as a raw materials for music design.

What instrument should you begin your improvisation development on? If you have a primary instrument, I would recommend beginning there as it will give you more options later on. But at this phase, your skill on the instrument is not important. If you can only make one sound, you can improvise on that. And an instrument can be anything that makes sound, including the voice, whistling, body percussion, beatboxing, or music software.

The first phase of improvisation development naturally leads into the second, which is becoming comfortable realizing imagined music. As you freely improvise, you will naturally develop opinions as to where to take the music next, and this phase involves practicing exercising that control. Accomplished improvisers can imagine music more complex than they can realize. So an important part of this phase is learning to imagine within what you can realize. When children make up songs, they are not improvising randomly. They realize successfully because they are improvising simple musical ideas. Start by imagining and realizing music that is very simple or slow. If you struggle, simplify until it feels easy.

To be clear, the process of realization is not about imagining, then translating to your instrument as quickly as possible. It is more like speech. The thinking and the playing happen in sync. Like a child with limited vocabulary, you may have big ideas and be frustrated by your inability to express them. Have patience. This phase is about discovering what you are capable of saying at this point in your development. And there is plenty of room for creativity within any amount of instrumental skill.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You are now comfortable improvising. So how do you grow as an improvisor from here? The third and final phase has three parts: practice and expand what you can play, what you can imagine, and what you can realize. Expand what you can play by challenging yourself to play new things. Expand what you can imagine by exposing yourself to new musical ideas. Better than just hearing them is actually playing them on your instrument. This helps connect the audiation with the kinesthetic realization. And finally, practice realized improvisation. As you improve in each of these areas, you will expand what you are capable of improvising, which is the purpose of improvisation development.

You can let your improvisations be entirely ephemeral, but consider documenting them in some way. For a long time, I simply recorded my improvisations as voice memos on my phone. The audio quality was lousy, but I didn’t mind because I just wanted to be able to identify what I had played so I could use it as material for future music designs. No one else heard them, and I did not listen to them for pleasure. More recently, my improvisation philosophy has changed. I now record my keyboard improvisations as MIDI so that they sound great, I feel comfortable sharing them with others, and if I want to use them in a design, they can be easily used and edited.

To recap, improvisation development should have three phases:

1. Becoming comfortable with free improvisation

2. Learning to realize simple imagined music and

3. Expanding what you can play, imagine, and realize

Part two coming soon: Music Design


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