Improvisation in music

What is improvisation?

Improvisation is not a substitute for anything; it is its own process, and intrinsic to music-making in all cultures and all times. It may be highly structured, or totally free. It is unwritten spontaneous composition, and can be a valuable tool for learning, not just about music, but about listening and communicating in general.

Formal and culturally specific improvisation

Some improvisation is culturally specific, and may be structured tonally, rhythmically or in other ways.

For example, the use of certain scales or modes can immediately conjure up an impression of a particular place or culture eg the use of the scales E minor and D major juxtaposed is characteristic of some Irish folk music.

While a scale of D minor, but with an F sharp instead of natural, starting on either D or C, will also conjure up an impression of Eastern European and Yiddish music.

Indian classical music is rooted in improvisation but there is a strict order to the way it is played and what happens rhythmically and melodically.

Traditional Western jazz is based on a series of chord structures that make use of specific intervals eg the major 7th.

A group of people who may not be experienced musicians can create group compositions by selecting notes and patterns from a certain scale; if kept simple these works can be very pleasing and easy on the ear.

Listen below to some examples of scales and chords that are or may seem culture-specific.

In improvisation workshops, we play lots of games that help to improve listening skills eg making up rhythms in a circle, in a call and response pattern, where each individual makes up a short rhythmic pattern, and everyone plays it back. Or we may sit in silence, and then gradually make small sounds, joining in one by one until we have come up with our own version of the dawn chorus (for example).

Free improvisation

Free improvisation can take many forms, but depends a lot on the sensitivity and listening skills of the performers. If they do not listen to each other, then it is easy for people to play too much, or too loudly.

Some large ensembles of free improvisers may impose structural limitations by using conducting, so that performers only play when the conductor indicates. Or they may agree beforehand that only two (or three, or four) players play together at any one time – the possibilities are endless.

Improvisation in unexpected places

With other members of the Radnor Improvisers and Fractofusus I have been playing free improvised music in care homes and schools.
In November four of us gave a concert to an alert and appreciative, if small, audience in the Great Hall at the St Monica Trust sheltered housing complex in Bristol.
More recently, three of us embarked on a programme of short improvised concerts for music students at secondary schools. The students were really engaged and inspired, even if at first they struggled a bit to make sense of what was happening.
This matters – very few young – or elderly – people will be exposed to free improvisation unless they have a family or friend whom they will go along to hear. It also seems that the standard GCSE music curriculum does not encourage experimentation.
If we truly want to be inclusive then sometimes we need to go to our audiences, not expect them to come to us.