Improvisation Defined

The concept of improvisation must be defined in with as short a description as possible so that it may be applied in playing.[1]  Looking the word on the web and one will find complex definitions that leave the reader with not much more than an academic description that is difficult to digest and apply. Therefore, in the interest of pragmatism ‘improvisation’ may be defined as ‘choices’, nothing more, nothing less.

Music is a language and may be compared with the spoken language in regards improvisation.  The first words a baby learns becomes his vocabulary, to be used as he understands or takes pleasure in using.  By 2 or 3 years of age more vocabulary is learned, therefore more communication is possible. As he accumulates more words, syntax begins to be used; verbs are action words, and nouns describe persons, places, or things. Since a baby has not yet learned to write, everything he says is according to his desire to communicate at the time he wishes to say something.  This is his improvisation; choicesof words that expresses his desires with a vocabulary that he has acquired.

The development of the language of music for the pianist must proceed with the same process. The term, ‘free’ improvisation is deceptive.  ‘Free’ is an adjective describing ‘improvisation’.  It’s opposite then must be ‘structured’ improvisation.  On the one hand, ‘free improvisation’ must be devoid of all structures such as the Western or Eastern scale, as defined with steps and half-steps, chords, etc., etc.  ‘Improvisation’ itself then refers herein and to the musician, as a process of communication with a Western instrument; the piano, violin, flute, etc., i.e. something with a structured scale.

The scale, and the major scale in particular is the basic structure of Western music based on the key circle from which musical frequencies are obtained, and ‘tempered’. The major scale then, is a structure from which other scales may be created, also intervals, and harmonies. Within this structure improvisation may take place when one makes a choice of notes to be played, i.e. not decided beforehand. And this is the joy of communication.

The spoken word communicates with concretes; it describes persons, places, and things.  Music, on the other hand, communicates with abstracts; feelings, moods, and sounds.  Each communicates in its own way, and is paired with words in a song with much the same syntax. ‘John ran home’; subject, verb, object.  And in music, ‘minor, dominant, major’; II, V, I.  ‘II-V-I’ the harmonic quality of each chord however may be of any identity; ‘Æ, x, m’, or ‘m, M, M’, etc. These changes of harmonic identity ‘on the spot’ constitute improvisation. In addition, their arrangements, positions, and octave may be changed ‘at will’.  This is referred to as ‘harmonic’ improvisation. ‘Melodic’ improvisation is based on the major scale, from which all else may be created ‘ad lib’.  The minor scale, for example is created by changing the major 3rdof the major scale to a minor 3rd. Each note of the major or minor scale for example, may be preceded or outlined with chromatic notes.  When these scalar agents are used ad lib, one is communicating the sounds which may create mood, and beauty.

Once improvisation on the major scale has been done in all keys, improvisation on a 4-bar melody may be worked on.  John Thompsons’ ’Teaching Little Fingers to Play” (or the adult version) is a perfect vehicle for this. Thompson was well schooled as a composer and concert pianist. His pieces are well constructed.  Each may be played as written with a beat. The beat may be played as written or one beat per measure for longer phrasing. Then add chromatic tones, change rhythm, meter, add notes, chang notes and add accents where they may be felt.  A sense of cadence must be considered.  Cadence may be defined as the rounding off of a phrase, just as one may do in the spoken language.  Music must have some meaning, some direction rather than just a continuum of just notes. Music communicates. As a language, that’s what music does. Cultivate it.  Then listen and read what other artists have done.  The 34 books on jazz improvisation published by Hal Leonard are excellent.  Many are arranged by Brent Egstrom, a well-educated, gifted musician.

And one more vital agent that must not be overlooked is rhythm. Music is defined as made up of harmony, melody, and rhythm. But, without melody there may still be music. Without harmony there still may be music. But without rhythm in both the spoken and music languages the ‘message’ is lost.  Rhythm in music begins with the beat. And the beat must be felt as a pulse.  Just as one must have a heartbeat to be alive, music must also have a beat, otherwise there is no communication that may be understood and felt.  Without a beat there is no divisions into smaller units, eighths, sixteenths, etc. Similarly, without a clock there is no division into smaller units of minutes, and hours. Without an apple there is no division into pieces of an apple.

Ralph Carroll Hedges, B.Ed., B.Mus., M.M.

[1]“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough” …Einstein

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