Is Improvisation Really Just “Spontaneous Composition”?

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Yes. (to answer the question in the title)

And no.

Yes, in that you are most certainly generating musical ideas. And yes, these ideas contain what can be referred to as “compositional elements and principles”. And yes, when you are a skilled improviser, you are often constructing a solo in a cogent, “compositional” manner.

But to describe improvisation as “spontaneous composition” is an incomplete (and sometimes inaccurate) description of the improvisational process.

In the most fundamental sense, the difference between improvisation and composition comes down to a matter of conscious deliberation.

Take human speech, as an example. The vast majority of the time you are speaking (talking with friends, explaining something to someone, etc.), you are actually improvising.

Sure, you might have a “theme” that you’re working with (maybe talking about where you’d like to eat lunch, for example), but you really aren’t planning, word for word, what you’re going to say. You’re simply following the immediate need to communicate. In essence, you’re reacting in real-time.

Now contrast that with writing something. Writing gives you a chance to choose your words more carefully. You can take your ideas out of “real-time”, and consciously craft them with the kind of nuance that best suits your intentions.

Musical improvisation and composition have a similar relationship. When you improvise, you are reacting, moment to moment (whether you think you are, or not).

Sure, there might be some kind of narrative going on in your mind as you do so, perhaps guiding and shaping what you play. Nonetheless, it’s still  a question of reaction.

And of course, musical composition is similar to composing with words, in that it is more calculated, more pondered upon, more deliberate.

Truth be told, improvisation involves a largely different neurological process than composing. As neuroscientist and amateur jazz pianist Charles Limb discovered in his research, the main parts of the brain that “light up” for a skilled improviser are the parts that have to do with immediate communication.

Think about that for a moment. The skilled improviser is largely in the realm of attempting to communicate  something. More specifically, to connect  with the other musicians with whom he or she is playing.

Communication involves not only taking into account the ideas that you have an impulse to express, but equally important, that which you are hearing and reacting to.

Listening is at the heart of it all.

The best, most sought after improvising musicians are those that listen deeply, and respond in accordance to what they hear. (The late, great jazz bassist Charlie Haden comes immediately to mind here!)

And of course, listening is a very active thing to do. To listen deeply is to be fully present. And being fully present in this way provides the wind beneath the wings of the improviser.

And it’s not just about listening to the others with whom you’re playing. It’s also about listening deeply to yourself. It’s about not being stuck in the “deliberation” of your musical ideas at the expense of losing your improvisational consciousness and flow.

Even if you’re playing with backing tracks, or a drum loop, or a metronome (things that don’t respond to what you’re doing), you need to be listening and reacting to what you hear. This is absolutely primary.

We’ve all heard novice to intermediate improvisers string one “pre-fabricated” idea into the next, seemingly unrelated, prefabricated idea. This kind of improvising lacks cogency. There is no “story” being told (as many accomplished jazz musicians might complain).

Again, this the result of not really listening, of not actually getting into that beautiful realm of communicating.

It’s a matter of getting “stuck in your head”, and not being truly available to hear what you just played, and how the rest of the ensemble is reacting  to what you just played.  It’s much like holding a good conversation. You listen,  to yourself and those with whom you’re speaking, and you say something that has a logical connection to the conversation. (It’s also part of the learning curve as an improviser, so if this describes where you are now, that’s fine; it will only get better!)

But I’ve also heard some highly accomplished improvisers try a little too  hard to tell their story.

This often gives them what sounds like a “well-crafted” solo, but perhaps not the most spontaneous expression. It can come off as sounding a bit too compositional (and somewhat self-conscious), as the emotional “arch” of the solo builds with more than a small amount of predictability.

Maybe it’s a matter of balance here, but to me, to “plan” an entire solo seems antithetical to the deeper, neurologic process of improvisation.   (I realize that I’m talking here about what my values are in improvisation. I don’t wish to challenge or offend those that disagree or hold other values.)

To paraphrase Charlie Parker: “Learn your instrument. Learn the scales and chords. Learn the tunes. Then forget all that stuff and just play.”

I think part of the reason why many of us still get excited when we hear these old Parker recordings, is because that is precisely  what is happening. We’re not so much hearing a deliberate “composition” (though it is most certainly, cogently compositional!) as much as we are hearing a highly disciplined musician who is spontaneously following his muse, is listening deeply, and is expressing himself freely and personally.

And so many other great improvisers have expressed similar sentiments. (Sonny Rollins talks about aiming to access the “subconscious” when he improvises.)

So study and think like a composer. Aim to master solid compositional principles. Work with the materials of music constantly, as you find new ways to move musically, and to express your ideas.

But when it’s actually time to improvise, just remember to be open, to listen and react without second guessing yourself. Let your voice emerge and manifest its unique, beautiful truth.

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