Improvising Music: Four Essential Components

After reflecting upon a lesson I gave last week to a beginning jazz student, I came to realize a simple truth about what it takes to improvise. I’d like to share my thoughts with you.

No matter what genre of music you improvise in, there are four essential components you rely upon to create music spontaneously. This applies whether you’re a novice or an accomplished artist (or somewhere in between). These  four things are:

  1. Impetus
  2. Imagination
  3. Control
  4. Risk

Allow me to elaborate.

Impetus

You must have something that moves you along, that gives life to your creative impulse.

Time, rhythm, and feel are primary, and are more basic and fundamental than pitch itself. There can be music without pitch, but not without rhythm. In jazz pedagogy, there is often too much of an emphasis for the beginning improviser on which notes to play, with little emphasis on the thing that actually gives life to these notes.

Many of these beginners feel deep frustration when they know a particular group of pitches quite well (like the blues scale, for example) but can’t seem to make any music with it.

This is a rhythmic issue. They need to develop and learn to rely upon their pulse/rhythm/ feel impetus.

Master improvisers are not really thinking  a lot about which notes to play and how to connect them when they’re in the middle of a solo. They’re mostly following their rhythmic instincts (which are, of course, integrated effectively into their harmonic/melodic knowledge and skills).

If you’re a novice improviser, spend lots and lots of time developing this first. I’ve written an article that will help you along with this.

Imagination

You have to be able to conceive melodic ideas (pitch, rhythm, inflection, articulation, dynamics…coming together seamlessly).

In essence, there has to be meaning to what you play (it has to mean something to you!) For this to happen, you need to work towards cultivating a vast musical imagination.

If you’re a beginning student of jazz, for example, you must listen, listen, listen to great jazz recordings! But don’t just listen passively. Make it a point to listen to a favorite improvised solo to the point that you can sing it clearly, accurately and easily. Then sing or hum this solo, making slight variations. This is just one thing you can do to develop your imagination.

You can also practice singing along with jazz recordings (or backing tracks) discovering and cultivating your imagination. Again, make the rhythmic impetus primary.

Control

You have to be able to carry out what you imagine and feel (impetus).

This is where so much of the hard work comes in. You must not only be able to have knowledge of chords, scales, articulations and forms, but also, you must have the skills on your instrument to play them…in real time, with little trouble or thought.

Some of the novice improvisers I teach simply need to spend more time mastering the basics of their instrument (technique, sound production, etc.) You also need to work towards hearing what you can play (scales, chords, melodic patterns, etc.), and understanding how it relates to harmony, melody, form, etc. This is also a component in developing your imagination (see above).

Risk

You must be willing to step into the unknown.

Without this willingness, you’ll never allow yourself the joy of spontaneous musical creation. Improvisation, by definition, involves risk. It involves being in the moment, faced with no exact script, and trusting your muse.

But let this be a fun thing, a human thing. After all, when you’re speaking, you’re improvising, constantly changing and following your thoughts. You do it naturally (through lots and lots of practice). Improvising music isn’t so different.

Great improvisers are not only unafraid of risk, but also, welcome it. They ride upon the unknown like a huge, beautiful wave.

In the study of jazz improvisation there can often be an imbalance of these 4 components. Perhaps too much of an emphasis on technical skills at the expense of developing imagination. Perhaps rarely exploring and pushing the limits of risk taking. Perhaps gaining great technical control over a very narrow rhythmic and melodic imagination.

Whatever the case, it’s always possible to reflect upon your progress, redirect your efforts, change your plan, and improve your playing.

Comments

  1. Shelby says

    Thanks for this article.

    I guess that risk is one of the major problems for most people coming through the normal reproductive study of an instrument.

    There is the idea that the “natural” way to do music is first productive then reproductive. You’re comparison to talking is very interesting and I think it is the same thing when you watch young children humming, playing around with sounds.

    We do have the ability to improvise from very early on and it seems to get lost through education. The usual way to learn an instrument seems always connected to learning to play a given melody and only much later to play around and produce your own melodies.

    Wouldn’t it be more logical to first try to discover what you can do with your instrument and only later try to reproduce what other people have done?

    I guess with this approach there wouldn’t be such a fuzz about “being creative” and “improvisation”.

    Do you have any thought about that?

    • Bill says

      Hi Shelby,

      You have some very interesting thoughts here, especially about productive versus reproductive music making. I think these two types of music making can be much closer than we think they are. The best interpretive musicians, are, to a certain degree, improvising in each performance of the piece they are playing (altering dynamics, tempo, timbre, etc.), as they follow their muse. Sure, their not “inventing the notes”, but they’re making instantaneous decisions about interpreting the notes (which to me is a form of improvising).

      Also, I completely agree with your idea that it is more logical to “first try to discover what you can do with your instrument and only later try to reproduce what other people have done”. When I teach a beginning saxophonist, for example, that’s precisely how we proceed. We’re not even looking at notated music for the first several months. Instead, we’re improvising, playing melodies by ear, singing, clapping rhythms, etc. I find that this not only makes improvisation a natural, easy, human activity for my student, but also, makes my student a better interpretive musician when we get to reading music.

      And yes, as you said, there isn’t so much fuss about “being creative”. It happens naturally. Thanks for your wonderful insights!

  2. says

    This is a great Bill! Thank you, its great to reflect on these essential aspects of the creative musical process. I really appreciate your emphasis on rhythm and the distinctions you are asking here which are truly valuable for any artist to consider and see which of these areas they may need growth. These are foundational and lead us to something which perhaps has more meaning and could be put into the area of spiritual discipline as artists. For me, whats very important to me personally as a performer as well as a listener is the aspect of our relationship to the ego in the creative process. Perhaps this could be a fifth component… though this may generally be more appropriately considered at the level when a musician is finding that he or she does have some level of mastery on their instrument and fluidity in their creative voice.

    It is the sense that the musician is lost in the music (in a positive sense, I don’t mean they don’t know where they are). I mean they are so connected and part of the music that their ego has become irrelevant. For some reason it seems that some listeners do not mind watching a musician who is expressing him or herself is an obvious show of their skill with their focus on impressing others. This often has the result of leaving me feel dry and empty and bored, no matter what level of technical skill and musical prowess is demonstrated. When great technical skill is combined with a high level of humility and sense of service and selflessness then I feel you have artists who can inspire us with unlimited possibility! An artist like John Coltrane comes to mind immediately.

    I suppose its like continually dedicating ourselves to growth, to keep learning and mastering all four of Bill’s essential components and then wrapping it all in sincerity and selfless love. Of course this is not a easy task at all because as artists we thrive on this sense of having our own voice and creative individuality. I struggle with this all the time. As artists we often deal with our ego too positively and too negatively. *

    For me, I feel that this ultimately the most important aspect of creative and improvised music. Christ taught that we must ‘lose ourselves to find ourselves’ (or die to ourselves). I find this one of the most practical scriptures for me as a creative artist. I have found that the most profound and richest expressions in performances as well as those that have touched others very deeply on an emotional level have been those that I have been able to lose consciousness of myself the most. So I pray that I may be positively lost in the music every time I step onto stage, that my heart, mind and hands may be an instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit and that sense of communion and joy freely flow as I get myself out of the way.

    * A prayer I really dig and always makes me laugh about the human condition is this…

    ‘Lord, help not to think of myself to highly, help me to not think of myself to lowly. Lord, help me to just not think of myself so much!’

    • Bill says

      Lots to think about here, Paul. Interesting that you add the possible “fifth element” as the ego (and that is something that certainly affects all of the four elements I mention). I equate what you might call “ego” as a fear response. It can keep us from opening up to the true beauty that can pass through us as we spontaneously create (improvise).

      But in my experience (both as muscian and as Alexander Technique teacher), my best performances aren’t when I’ve lost consciousness of myself. Rather, they’re when I have heightened consciousness: an easy and constant sense of myself as I make music (sensing my movement, balance, breath, relationship to my instrument, etc.), minus the (formerly) ever-present script and dialogue of “how well am I playing?” I still find it fascinating that, the more I’ve lost myself in the music (in the best sense of that word), the greater my self awareness is, and the less my self consciousness is (I’m defining self consciousness here as that “judging” voice in our heads). When I’m performing well, I seem to experience an integration of my emotions, muse, sounds, flow, bodily (and other) senses, the presence and playing of the other musicians…everything…as I surrender to the present moment. A beautiful thing when it all comes together.

      Finally, I completely agree with your spiritual metaphors for playing music. I think that playing music (especially improvising) is both a spiritual experience and a spiritual pursuit. It is a way for us to come face to face with the ego, smile, and say, “no, thanks”, and instead let beauty and truth flow through us. Wonderful thoughts, Paul! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Fernando Caneca says

    Hi Bill
    I’m a Brazilian musician and I would like to say that
    allways I learn a lot with you.

    Thanks.. a lot
    Fernando Caneca

    • Bill says

      Hi Fernando,

      I’m happy to know that you enjoy my work! (Minha mulher e brasileira, e por isso eu falo um pouquinho de portugues. Tudo de bom pra voce!)

      Bill

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