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Point of View 

We asked eminent Australian
jazz composer/pianist, Bill Risby
to answer the following question...

February 2008

The Question:
What is musical improvisation?

Response by Bill Risby share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Music comes from such a diverse and unlimited source that it can be hard to claim ownership over anything we play as musicians. Improvisation is the supposed ability to make something up out of nothing, to “make it up as you go” as it were. Is this really the case?

Branford Marsalis once said, “Without structure there is no freedom”. Coming from a traditional Western musical background (both Classical and jazz) the music I studied is filled with structure. One of the structures set in place is the tuning system used for the instruments we play. Another structure is the set of scales we play with those notes. There are rules involved in resolving harmonic dissonances, and rules regarding which beat of the bar is emphasised, not to mention the fact that most of the time we divide music into bars (or measures). For the purpose of this discussion we will have to rule out perhaps 75% of the known world in order to offer us a little freedom and focus, and at a later time these thoughts can be applied to the music of rest of the world.

The word ‘Improvisation’ usually means to compose in real time. This can include composing the harmony, the melody, the rhythm, or any combination of these elements, depending on how much existing structure you wish to base your improvised contribution on. (keep in mind that if you improvise all these three elements, you are still bound by certain elements. You could play out of time and measure but your piano (for example) will still be tuned to A440 or whatever it was originally tuned to, and it is still not possible to play a note between C and C# for e.g.).

So improvising is composing, but the key question is, “How long can the delay be between the composing and the performing before it is no longer improvising?” If the idea ‘pops’ into your head 5 minutes before you play it then surely it was pre-composed but hasn’t been written down yet… furthermore, if I think to myself while playing, “Now I will play this scale over the next two bars…” and then choose not to decide each individual note till those two bars are up, am I improvising? Or am I playing a pre-composed scale?

Composers of the past such as J.S. Bach and W.A. Mozart improvised in much the same way as we do now, and some of their music we play today was improvised, and then written down afterwards. Bach still sounds like Bach because he adhered to certain rules (and patterns and phrases) of the day as much as he broke them. Their music still sounds Baroque, or Classical, i.e. it doesn’t sound random.

When we improvise a melody in music we usually take a chord structure or chord progression and “make up” a melody that fits with those chords. Where does this melody come from? These notes can come from one of many sources, or any combination of these sources.

  1. Memory: We can recall sounds we have heard in the past from the huge vocabulary of music stored in our brain. If we have listened to Led Zeppelin, Dave Brubeck, Fats Domino, Joni Mitchell, J.S. Bach and Herbie Hancock, then the sounds we are likely to recall will come from a vocabulary of these sounds in our memory. This includes melody, harmony and rhythm.
  2. Scales, arpeggios and patterns: We consciously learn a vocabulary of sounds when we first learn to play that become a pool that we draw from when we improvise.
  3. Chord voicings and qualities: Same as for scales above… we learn a vocabulary of sounds we like to hear when playing more than one note together.

The way I define improvisation is that any note heard and then played with intention is improvisation.

To demonstrate what I mean, I am occasionally asked if I can read music. I usually answer with, “I can read any piece of music perfectly, but not necessarily as fast as I can play it…” So it is with improvising. I can play notes of my choosing at a particular tempo, but after my ability to choose has been sabotaged by the tempo I resort to choosing whole patterns, phrases, scales and arpeggios from my vocabulary of sounds. I may know what a scale is going to sound like but I am not choosing each note, in fact the music (more specifically the tempo of the music) has chosen the way I have to play it.
I have gone from improvising to getting to the end… from the front foot to the back foot so to speak.

This less desirable default can be thrust upon us through difficult tempos (fast of slow), or difficult harmonic progressions that can’t be heard, or difficult rhythmic patterns that can’t be felt. Another limiting factor can be the ability to hear what you want to play while playing and hearing where you are now in a piece.

A corollary of this is that a great improviser has to develop the ability to transcend the three musical elements of harmony, tempo and rhythm to create something new, and also have the ability to do this while hearing something now. In addition to this one might include the vocabulary of the feelings of music as something that must be transcended in order to communicate effectively.

All players have strong and weak elements in their playing and the quality of their solos and improvisations are determined by this. The music they choose to play often defines whether we think they can improvise or not.

Improvising is like life in that NOW is all that matters. To quote Omar Khayyam,

The moving finger writes; and, having writ
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

© 2008 Bill Risby

Have Your Say
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Hey, great article, thanks Bill. There isn't much more to say about improvisation after reading this. Looking forward to the next occasion when I can hear you in the NOW, and respond just as immediately!

Posted by Glenn Henrich on Friday 2 July 2010
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