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Musical improvisation

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.[1] Thus, musical ideas in improvisation are spontaneous, but may be based on chord changes in classical music,[1] and indeed many other kinds of music.

Because improvisation is a performing 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.[1] Thus, a musician's technical ability is not necessarily related to their improvisational ability, though both skills can complement each other.


Historical development in Western music

Throughout the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, improvisation was a highly valued skill. Francesco Landini, Adrian Willaert, Diego Ortiz, Frescobaldi, J.S. 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 treatises on polyphony, 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.[2] 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.

Medieval period

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.[3] 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.[4]

Renaissance 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.[5] 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.[6] Keyboard players likewise performed extempore, freely formed pieces.[7]

Baroque period

The kinds of improvisation practised 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 (1601/2)[8]

Melodic instruments

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.[9]

Keyboard, lute, and guitar

The pattern of chords in many baroque preludes, for example, can be played on keyboard and guitar over a pedal tone or repeated bass notes. Such progressions can be used in many other structures and contexts, and are still found in Mozart, but most preludes begin with the treble supported by a simple bass. J.S. Bach, for example, was particularly fond of the sound produced by the dominant seventh harmony played over, i.e., suspended against, the tonic pedal tone.[10]

There is little or no Alberti bass in baroque keyboard music, and instead the accompanying hand supports the moving lines mostly by contrasting them with longer note values, which themselves have a melodic shape and are mostly placed in consonant harmony. This polarity can be reversed another useful technique for improvisation by changing the longer note values to the right hand and playing moving lines in the left at intervals or with moving lines in both hands, occasionally. This shift of roles between treble and bass is another definitive characteristic. Finally, in keeping with this polarity, the kind of question and answer which appears in baroque music has the appearance of fugue or canon. This method was a favorite in compositions by Scarlatti and Handel especially at the beginning of a piece, even when not forming a fugue.[11]

Organ improvisation and church music

Improvised accompaniment over a figured bass was a common practice during the Baroque era, and to some extent the following periods. Improvisation remains a feature of organ playing in some church services and are regularly also performed at concerts.

Among the most prominent of today's organ improvisers are Olivier Latry and Jean Guillou. In the past Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, C sar Franck, Marcel Dupr , and Olivier Messiaen, amongst others, were regarded as highly skilled organ improvisers. Organ improvisations have occasionally been released on CD, such as the double album Like a Flame by Frederik Magle. Some improvisations are written down after having been performed, either based on a recording or by memory, such as the case of Marcel Dupr 's Symphonie-Passion which began its life as an improvisation on the Wanamaker organ.

The Classical period

Keyboard improvisation

Classical music departs from baroque style in that sometimes several voices may move together as chords involving both hands, to form brief phrases without any passing tones. Though such motifs were used sparingly by Mozart, they were taken up much more liberally by Beethoven and Schubert. Such chords also appeared to some extent in baroque keyboard music, such as the 3rd movement theme in Bach's Italian Concerto. But at that time such a chord often appeared only in one clef at a time, (or one hand on the keyboard) and did not form the independent phrases found more in later music. Adorno mentions this movement of the Italian Concerto as a more flexible, improvisatory form, in comparison to Mozart, suggesting the gradual diminishment of improvisation well before its decline became obvious.[12]

The introductory gesture of "tonic, subdominant, dominant, tonic," however, much like its baroque form, continues to appear at the beginning of high-classical and romantic piano pieces (and much other music) as in Haydn's sonata Hob.16/No. 52 and Beethoven's sonata opus 78.

Beethoven and Mozart cultivated mood markings such as con amore, appassionato, cantabile, and expressivo. In fact, it is perhaps because improvisation is spontaneous that it is akin to the communication of love.[13]

Mozart and Beethoven

Beethoven and Mozart left excellent examples of what their improvisations were like, in the sets of variations and the sonatas which they published, and in their cadenzas. As a keyboard player, Mozart competed at least once with Muzio Clementi.[14] Beethoven won many tough improvisatory battles over such rivals as Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Daniel Steibelt, and Joseph Woelfl.[15]

Romantic period


Extemporization, both in the form of introductions to pieces, and links between pieces, continued to be a feature of keyboard concertising until the early 20th-century. Amongst those who practised such improvisation were Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Anton Rubinstein, Paderewski, Percy Grainger and Pachmann. Improvisation in the area of 'art music' seems to have declined with the growth of recording.[16]


After studying over 1,200 early Verdi recordings, Will Crutchfield concludes that "The solo cavatina was the most obvious and enduring locus of soloistic discretion in nineteenth-century opera".[17] He goes on to identify seven main types of vocal improvisation used by opera singers in this repertory [18]:

  • 1. The Verdian full-stop cadenza
  • 2. Arias without full-stop : ballate, canzoni, and romanze
  • 3. Ornamentation of internal cadences
  • 4. Melodic variants (interpolated hight notes, acciaccature, rising two-note "slide")
  • 5. Strophic variation and the problem of the cabaletta
  • 6. Facilitations (puntature, simplification of fioratura, etc.)
  • 7. Recitative

Modern opinions on improvisation in art music

Theodor Adorno

Toward the end of the section of Aesthetic Theory entitled "Art Beauty" (in the English edition), 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.[19] It may be assumed Adorno meant classical improvisation, not jazz, which he mostly excoriated. He held jazz, for example, to be antithetical to Beethoven.[20] There is more extensive treatment, essentially about traditional jazz, in Prisms and The Jargon of Authenticity.[21]

Glenn Gould

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.[22]

Contemporary improvisation

Jazz improvisation

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.[23] 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.[24]

Contemporary classical music

While the first half of the twentieth century is marked by an almost total absence of actual improvisation in art music,[25] 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. Significant pieces include Foss's Time Cycles (1960) and Echoi (1963).[26]

Other composers working with improvisation include Richard Barrett, Pierre Boulez, Frank Zappa, Cornelius Cardew, Douglas J. Cuomo, Alvin Curran, Stuart Dempster, Hugh Davies, Karlheinz Essl, Vinko Globokar, Richard Grayson, Stephen Nachmanovitch, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Richard Teitelbaum, Christian Wolff, Vangelis, La Monte Young, John Zorn and Yitzhak Yedid.

Several pianists also teach classical improvisation and perform, such as David Dolan,[27] William Goldstein,[28] Yitzhak Yedid and Eric Barnhill.[29]

Contemporary popular music

Jam bands

In the 1960s The Grateful Dead gained popularity and bestowed a name on 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.

Psychedelic- and progressive-rock music

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.[30] Bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers Band (Particularly with Duane Allman), 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, e.g. Henry Cow.[31]

Silent-film music

In the realm of silent-film-music performance, there is also a small number of musicians whose improvisational work has been recognized as exceptional by critics, scholars, and audiences alike: Neil Brand, Guenter A. Buchwald, Philip Carli, Stephen Horne, Donald Sosin, John Sweeney, and Gabriel Thibaudeau, all performers at the annual conference on silent film in Pordenone, Italy, "Le Giornate del Cinema Muto." 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.


Worldwide there are many venues dedicated to supporting live improvisation. In Melbourne since 1998, the Make It Up Club (held every Tuesday evening at Bar Open on Brunswick Street, Melbourne) has been presenting a weekly concert series dedicated to promoting avant-garde improvised music and sound performance of the highest conceptual and performative standards (regardless of idiom, genre, or instrumentation). The Make It Up Club has become an institution in Australian improvised music and consistently features artists from all over the world.

See also



  • Abert, Hermann. 2007. W. A. Mozart, translated from the German by Stewart Spencer, edited by Cliff Eisen. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300072235.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1973. The Jargon of Authenticity, translated by Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0810104075.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1981. Prisms, translated from the German by Samuel and Shierry Weber. Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. ISBN 0262510251 ISBN 026201064X.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1997. Aesthetic Theory, translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816617996.
  • Bailey, Derek. 1992. Improvisation: It's Nature and Practice in Music, revised edition. London: British Library National Sound Archive. ISBN 0712305068.
  • Berliner, Paul. 1994. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226043800 (cloth); ISBN 0226043819 (pbk.).
  • Brown, Howard Mayer. 1976. Embellishing Sixteenth-Century Music. Early Music Series 1. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0193231751.
  • Collins, Michael, Stewart A. Carter, Greer Garden, and Robert E. Seletsky. 2001. "Improvisation II: Western Art Music 3: The Baroque Period". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Crutchfield, Will. 2001. "Improvisation: II. Western Art Music: 5. The Nineteenth Century: (ii) Vocal music". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Czerny, Carl. 1833. L art de pr luder: mis en pratique pour le piano par 120 examples de pr ludes, modulations, cadenses et fantaisien de tous genres. Paris: M. Schlesinger.
  • Dalla Casa, Girolamo. 1584. Il vero modo di diminuir, con tutte le sorti di stromenti di fiato, & corda, & di voce humana. 2 vols. Venice: Angelo Gardano. Facsimile reprint, in one volume, Bibliotheca musica Bononiensis, sezione 2, no. 23 (Bologna: Arnoldi Forni Editore).
  • Ferand, Ernest T. 1938. Die Improvisation in der Musik; eine Entwicklungsgeschichtliche und Psychologische Untersuchung. Z rich: Rhein-Verlag.
  • Friedrich, Otto. 1989. Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations. New York: Random House. ISBN 039457771X
  • Fuller, Sarah. 2002. "Organum, Discantus, Contrapunctus in the Middle Ages". In The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, edited by Thomas Christensen, 477-502. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521623715.
  • Ganassi, Silvestro. 1535. Opera Intitulata Fontegara: Laquale insegna a sonare di flauto ch'o tutta l'arte opportuna a esso instrumento massime il diminuire ilquale sara utile ad ogni istrumeno di fiato et chorde: et anchora a chi si dileta di canto. Venice: per Syluestro di Ganassi dal Fontego, Sonator dalla illustrissima signoria di Venetia hautor pprio. Facsimile reprints, Collezione di trattati e musiche antiche edite in fac-simile (Milan: Bollettino bibliografico musicale, 1934) and Bibliotheca musica Bononiensis, Sezione II, no. 18 (Bologna: Forni, 1969). German edition, edited by Hildemarie Peter (Berlin-Lichterfeld: Robert Lienau, 1956). English edition with translation by Dorothy Swainson of Peter's German text (Berlin-Lichterfeld: Robert Lienau, 1959).
  • Gorow, Ron. 2002. Hearing and Writing Music: Professional Training for Today's Musician, 2nd ed. Gardena, CA: September Publishing. ISBN 0962949671.
  • Griffiths, Paul. 2001. "Improvisation II: Western Art Music 6: The 20th Century". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Guido d'Arezzo. 1978. "Micrologus" [ca. 1027], translated by Warren Babb. In Hucbald, Guido, and John on Music: Three Medieval Treatises, edited, with introductions, by Claude V. Palisca; index of chants by Alejandro Enrique Planchart, 57 83. Music Theory Translation Series 3. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300020406.
  • Hamilton, Kenneth. 2008. After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press ISBN 978015178265.
  • Heartz, Daniel. 1958 63. "The Basse Dance, Its Evolution Circa 1450 to 1550". Annales Musicologiques 6:287 340.
  • Horsley, Imogene. 2001. "Improvisation II: Western Art Music 2: History to 1600". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Hotteterre, Jacques-Martin. 1719. L art de pr luder: sur la fl te traversi re, sur la fl te bec, sur le hautbois et autres instrumens de dessus, op. 7. Paris: Boivin. Facsimile reprints: recueillie par Michel Sanvoisin (Paris: A. Zurfluh, 1966), (Geneva: Minkoff, 1978) ISBN 2826606727, and Archivum musicum: L art de la fl te traversi re 55 (Florence: SPES, 1999). ISBN 8872427797 Musical pieces edited by Erich Doflein and Nikolaus Delius as 48 Pr ludes in 24 Tonarten aus op. VII, 1719, f r Altblockfl te (Querfl te, Oboe). Mainz: B. Schott s S hne; New York: Schott Music Corp., 1972.
  • Kertz-Welzel, Alexandra. 2004. "Piano Improvisation Develops Musicianship." Orff-Echo 37, no. 1:11 14.
  • Koenig, Wolf, and Roman Kroitor (prod./dir.). 1959a. Glenn Gould: Off the Record. Film, 30 mins. [Canada]: National Film Board of Canada.
  • Koenig, Wolf, and Roman Kroitor (prod./dir.). 1959b. Glenn Gould: On the Record. Film, 30 mins. [Canada]: National Film Board of Canada.
  • Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. 1953. Concerto No. 24 In C Minor for Piano, edited by Franz Kullak. New York: G. Schirmer.
  • Nachmanovitch, Stephen. 1990. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc.; New York: Distributed by St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0874775787 (cloth); ISBN 0874776317 (pbk); New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0874776317.
  • Ortiz, Diego. 1553. Trattado de glosas sobre clausulas y otros generos depuntos en la musica de violones. Nuevamente puestos en Luz (also in Italian, as El primo libro nel quale si tratta delle glose sopra le cadenze et altre sorte de punti in la musica del violone). 2 vols. Rome: Dorico. Facsimile reprint of the Italian edition, Archivum musicum 57 (Florence: Studio per edizioni scelte, 1984). Transcription, edition, and German translation by Max Schneider (Kassel: B renreiter, 1936).
  • Paras, Jason. 1986. The Music for Viola Bastarda, edited by George Houle and Glenna Houle. Music Scholarship and Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253388244
  • Polk, Keith. 1966. "Flemish Wind Bands in the Late Middle Ages: A Study of Improvisatory Instrumental Practices". Ph.D. dissertation. Berkeley: University of California.
  • Sancho-Velazquez, Angeles. 2005. "The Legacy of Genius: Improvisaion, Romanic Imagination, and the Wesern Musical Canon," Ph. D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles. Visit: or by title.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1958. The World as Will and Representation. Translated from the German by E. F. J. Payne, 2 vols. [Indian Hills, Colorado]: Falcon's Wing Press.
  • Solomon, Maynard. 1998. Beethoven, second, revised edition. New York: Schirmer Books; London: Prentice Hall International. ISBN 0028647173. Second printing, 2001, ISBN 0825672686.
  • Szwed, John F. 2000. Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-8496-7.
  • Thomas de Sancta Maria, fray. 1565. Libro llamado Arte de ta er fantasia: assi para tecla como para vihuela, y todo instrumento, en que se pudiere ta er a tres, y a quatro vozes, y a mas ... Elqual por mandado del muy alto Consejo real fue examinado, y aprouado por el eminente musico de Su Magestad Antonio de Cabe on, y por Iuan de Cabe on, su hermano. Valladolid: F. Fernandez de Cordova. Facsimile editions: with an introduction in English by Denis Stevens (Farnborough, UK: Gregg International Publishers, 1972) ISBN 0576282294; Monumentos de la m sica espa ola 75, edited by Luis Antonio Gonz lez Mar n, with the collaboration of Antonio Ezquerro Estaban, et al. (Barcelona: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cient ficas, Instituci n "Mil i Fontanals," Departamento de Musicolog a, 2007). ISBN 9788400085414 ISBN 8400085418 English translation by Warren E. Hultberg and Almonte C. Howell, Jr, as The Art of Playing the Fantasia (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1991) ISBN 0935480528
  • Von Gunden, Heidi. 1983. The Music of Pauline Oliveros. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-1600-8.

Further reading

  • Alperson, Philip. 1984. "On Musical Improvisation". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 43, no. 1 (Fall): 17 29.
  • Solis, Gabriel, and Bruno Nettl (eds.). 2009. Musical Improvisation: Art, Education, and Society. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-03462-6 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-252-07654-1 (pbk)

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