What Does Improvisation Mean in Music?

Improvisation generally refers to the process of making music spontaneously, without prior rehearsal. It can be a relatively free-form process, in which musicians simply make up music as they go along, or it can be more structured, with specific rules set by the composer or conductor.

Improvisation isn’t just for jazz; it spans genres. Even classical composers wrote pieces that allowed performers to improvise. This article covers the basics of musical improvisation and how it works.

Key Takeaways on Music Improvisation

  • Improvisation Defined: Improvisation involves creating music spontaneously without prior rehearsal, either freely or with some structure.
  • Not Limited to Jazz: While often associated with jazz, improvisation can be found in any genre, including classical and contemporary music.
  • Theory and Chords: Effective improvisation relies on a solid understanding of music theory, including key signatures, scales, and chord progressions.
  • Listening and Learning: Exposure to music from notable improvisers, such as Miles Davis or Duke Ellington, aids in developing improvisational skills.
  • Improvisation in Composition: Improvisation can be a valuable tool for composing music, allowing for spontaneous creativity and collaboration among musicians.

What are the rules of improvisation in music?

Rules of improvisation in music aren’t fixed. Each musician may have their own, influenced by the music style and music culture. Instead of strict rules, improvisers typically follow music theory.

Improvised music comes in various forms, each with its own rules. In Western music, it’s often based on a sequence of chords within a key signature. Musicians use different scales and patterns to improvise over these chords, commonly described in keys like E Major or F-sharp Minor.

The composer or conductor of written music sets rules for improvisation. An improvised solo might follow chords I – IV – V – I, with the musician improvising within scale patterns for each chord.

What should I listen to before improvising?

Even if you don’t want to improvise yourself, it’s helpful to listen to musicians who do. This gives you an idea of the types of music improvisers create. Examples include “A Rainbow in Curved Air” by Terry Riley, “Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature” by Sun Ra, and Duke Ellington’s works.

How to improvise in music?

Many musicians think they aren’t good improvisers, or they say music just “comes to them” when they do. However, we’re surrounded by music every day, and most have heard improvisation before. So, if you want to create spontaneous music, it’s possible in almost any style! Follow the steps below to get started.

1. Learn music theory

This means knowing the basics of music, like how music is notated, understanding pitches and intervals, and how chords work.

2. Familiarize yourself with the basic chord progressions

If you’re new to improvisation, start with jazz, which focuses on chords and progressions instead of melodies. A useful book on music theory for improvisation is “Jazz Piano: Chords and Progressions” by Mark Levine.

3. Practice improvising using the basic chords and scales in music

Start slow and gradually increase the tempo. Improvise like jazz musicians! If you’re stuck for ideas, listen to the music in your head or from a source like the radio or an iPod.

What are some music examples of improvisation in music?

Music improvisation exists in all types of music from various time periods, genres, cultures, and traditions. It’s present in Baroque music and can be seen in J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” for example.

Examples of improvisation music include “So What” by Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Rimsky-Korsakov also composed notable pieces for improvising. 

What is the difference between composition and improvisation?

Composers create composition music. Improvisation music, however, is made spontaneously, without prior planning or notation.

Composition often includes improvisation sections, or improvisers might be part of an ensemble. Improvisation is similar to composition—both rely on music theory. However, improvisers must use their ears instead of reading sheet music.

Can improvisation be used for music composition?

Improvisation is often used in composing music, especially modern forms like jazz. For example, a chord progression might repeat during an improvisation section of a song. The musician then “composes” new music on the spot, also known as “extemporization”.

Musicians often use improvisation during jam sessions for composing music. One musician shares a chord progression or pattern, and others play along.