Musical Improvisation

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Musical improvisation (also known as Musical Extemporization) is the creative activity of immediate (‘in the moment’) musical composition, which combines performance with communication of emotions and instrumental technique as well as spontaneous response to other musicians. Thus, musical ideas in improvisation are spontaneous, but may be based on chord changes in classical music, and indeed many other kinds of music.

Because improvisation is a performative act and depends on instrumental technique, improvisation is a skill. There are musicians who have never improvised and other musicians who have devoted their entire lives to improvisation. Thus, a musicians technical ability is not necessarily related to their improvisational ability, though both skills can complement each other.

Throughout the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, improvisation was a highly valued skill. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and many other famous composers and musicians were known especially for their improvisational skills.

Improvisation might have played an important role in the monophonic period (the earliest music, melody without accompanying harmony). The earliest treatises on polyphony (two or more tones at once), such as the ‘Musica enchiriadis’ (ninth century), make plain that added parts were improvised for centuries before the first notated examples. However, it was only in the fifteenth century that theorists began making a hard distinction between improvised and written music.

Many classical forms contained sections for improvisation, such as the cadenza in concertos, or the preludes to some keyboard suites by Bach and Handel, which consist of elaborations of a progression of chords, which performers are to use as the basis for their improvisation. Handel, Scarlatti, and Bach all belonged to a tradition of solo keyboard improvisation that was not limited to variations, but included the concerto form, typically with moving voices in both hands, occasionally exploring fugue (a compositional technique built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition).

Although melodic improvisation was an important factor in European music from the earliest times, the first detailed information on improvisation technique appears in ninth-century treatises instructing singers on how to add another melody to a pre-existent liturgical chant, in a style called organum. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, improvised counterpoint over a cantus firmus (a practice found both in church music and in popular dance music) constituted a part of every musician’s education, and is regarded as the most important kind of unwritten music before the Baroque period.

Following the invention of music printing at the beginning of the sixteenth century, there is more detailed documentation of improvisational practice, in the form of published instruction manuals, mainly in Italy. In addition to improvising counterpoint over a cantus firmus, singers and instrumentalists improvised melodies over ostinato chord patterns, made elaborate embellishments of melodic lines, and invented music extemporaneously without any predetermined schemata. Keyboard players likewise performed extempore, freely formed pieces.

The kinds of improvisation practiced during the Renaissance—principally either the embellishing of an existing part or the creation of an entirely new part or parts—continued into the early Baroque, though important modifications were introduced. Ornamentation began to be brought more under the control of composers, in some cases by writing out embellishments, and more broadly by introducing symbols or abbreviations for certain ornamental patterns. Two of the earliest important sources for vocal ornamentation of this sort are Giovanni Battista Bovicelli’s ‘Regole, passaggi di musica’ (1594), and the preface to Giulio Caccini’s collection, ‘Le nuove musiche’ (1601).

Eighteenth-century manuals make it clear that performers on the flute, oboe, violin, and other melodic instruments were expected not only to ornament previously composed pieces, but also spontaneously to improvise preludes.

Extemporization, both in the form of introductions to pieces, and links between pieces, continued to be a feature of keyboard concertizing until the early 20th-century. Amongst those who practiced such improvisation were Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn.

Toward the end of the section of Aesthetic Theory entitled ‘Art Beauty,’ Theodor Adorno included a brief argument on improvisation’s aesthetic value. Claiming that artworks must have a ‘thing-character’ through which their spiritual content breaks, Adorno pointed out that the thing-character is in question in the improvised, yet present. It may be assumed Adorno meant classical improvisation, not jazz, which he mostly excoriated. He held jazz, for example, to be antithetical to Beethoven.

Improvisation may be pressed to derive something novel from past material, which becomes outmoded through its limited concepts of tonality, form, and variation. Though his understanding of modern music was itself unorthodox, Glenn Gould appears to have such a view as he clearly thought musical history was a finite exploration of forms and tonal concepts, and exhaustible.

Improvisation is one of the basic elements that sets jazz apart from other types of music. Even if improvisation is also found outside of jazz, it may be that no other music relies so much on the art of ‘composing in the moment,’ demanding that every musician rise to a certain level of creativity that may put the performer in touch with his or her unconscious as well as conscious states. Many varied scales and their modes can be used in improvisation. They are often not written down in the process, but they help musicians practice the jazz idiom.

A common view of what a jazz soloist does could be expressed thus: as the harmonies go by, he selects notes from each chord, out of which he fashions a melody. He is free to embellish by means of passing and neighbor tones, and he may add extensions to the chords, but at all times a good improviser must follow the changes. … [However], a jazz musician really has several options: he may reflect the chord progression exactly, he may ‘skim over’ the progression and simply elaborate the background harmony, or he may fashion his own voice-leading which may clash at some points with the chords the rhythm section is playing.

While the first half of the twentieth century is marked by an almost total absence of actual improvisation in art music, since the 1950s, some contemporary composers have placed fewer restrictions on the improvising performer, using techniques such as vague notation (for example, indicating only that a certain number of notes must sound within a defined period of time). New Music ensembles formed around improvisation were founded, such as the Scratch Orchestra in England; Musica Elettronica Viva in Italy; Lukas Foss’s Improvisation Chamber Ensemble at the University of California, Los Angeles; Larry Austin’s New Music Ensemble at the University of California, Davis; the ONCE Group at Ann Arbor; the Sonic Arts Group; and Sonics, the latter three funding themselves through concerts, tours, and grants.

The 1960s saw The Grateful Dead gain popularity and bring a name to the ‘jam’ genre. Since the 1980s, bands like Phish, Widespread Panic, moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Max Creek, and The String Cheese Incident have used musical improvisation extensively; indeed, for the more devoted followers of any band, these extended improvisational segments—jams—are a large part of what makes a live show so special. The jam band scene has also seen the rise of ‘jamgrass’ with bands like Hot Buttered Rum, Cornmeal and Yonder Mountain String Band, along with the rise of Livetronica with bands like The Disco Biscuits, Lotus, The New Deal, and STS9 (Sound Tribe Sector 9), most of whom feature improvisation very heavily in their music.

In the realm of silent film music performance, there are also a small number of musicians whose improvisational work has been recognized as exceptional by critics, scholars and audiences alike. Their performances have to match the style and pacing of the films they accompany, often at first sight, and demand a knowledge of a wide range of musical styles, as well as the stamina to play for films which occasionally run over three hours in length without a pause. In addition to the performances, these pianists also teach a master class for those who wish to develop their skill in improvising for films.

Also in pop music musical improvisation is present. Following the structure of previous jazz forms, from the 1950s onwards the most common example of improvisation in pop and rock is the guitar solo. Other instrumental solos, and collective improvisation are also used. British Psychedelic rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s used improvisations to express their dazed state of mind under the influence of psychedelic drugs in a musical language. Bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead, The Doors, Velvet Underground and the Jimi Hendrix Experience have explored musical improvisations into their performances. The progressive rock genre also began exploring improvisation as a musical expression by artists like Henry Cow, The Soft Machine, Robert Fripp, Brian Eno.

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