Musical improvisation: reflections and considerations

Art, and therefore music, is born and develops through improvisation. This transversal and multicultural concept is the recognition that the evolution of art happens for a need, intrinsic and tumultuous in man, towards communication.

Musical improvisation

The practice of musical improvisation is evident in all phases of music history. It has always been a powerful force in the invention of new forms, and any historical study that does not take due account of the improvisation element will necessarily present an incomplete picture.

This is because it is not possible to find a single sector of music that has not been influenced by improvisation, nor a single musical technique or form, that has not originated from improvisational practice or has not been conditioned by it. The entire history of musical development is accompanied by manifestations of the impulse to improvise.

What is musical improvisation

Musical improvisation is a language composed of parts that combine together, sometimes giving rise to creative and original solutions.

Improvising, inventing on the fly melodies, rhythms, sounds is the most obvious and natural thing that exists, and in fact it has been practiced for tens of thousands of years. Human beings have produced music since prehistoric times with a precise function in social life. For primitive men, music was an essential element in healing, hunting and war rituals and a means of communication with the spirits of the dead.

The need to express oneself through sounds was born with the human being. Throughout history improvisation is practiced in various fields and cultures: it is improvised in medieval discourse, in the cadences of the Baroque period, in the rhymes of Tuscan poets, in the commedia dell’arte, in the Indian raga, in action painting.

Life itself is a largely improvisational process: one interacts socially with one’s fellow human beings through shared rules, but one is free to apply different choices and strategies within these rules.

Musical improvisation has played an important role in the birth of Gregorian chant and polyphony, the use of improvised embellishment reached its peak in the Baroque, while it has continued to this day in organ music and random music.

The appearance of the pentagram and symbols of temporal duration means that the musical work ceases to be exclusively musical and begins to exist outside itself in the form of an object called a score.

Since the seventeenth century in Western music, with the emergence of a new concept of composer, the improvisational practice begins to stiffen and codify, increasingly losing the character of extemporaneity to become a compositional practice.

The instructions that accompany the musical notations become more direct and explicit during the nineteenth century and even the progressive formal difficulty of the compositions is such that they no longer tolerate the flexibility and freedom of improvisation.

Jazz improvisation

Despite this, musical improvisation continues to exist even if “relegated” to the composer’s instinctive and creative sphere. However, it must wait for the birth and tumultuous development of jazz to reveal itself again as a performing practice. With jazz, improvisation returns to be central.

Jazz is the idiomatic style chosen by improvisation to give itself the dignity of modern musicological analysis and historicization; you can discuss and analyze the evolution of improvisation connecting it to the history of jazz and its styles. To the Western musician jazz is useful above all because it reminds him of something that, in the context of Western music, was almost extinct, it refreshes his memory on the fact that creating music and performing it are not necessarily two separate activities.

Can you learn musical improvisation?

On the one hand, there is the widespread idea that understanding music needs special education and practice. On the other hand, some researchers argue that the perception of music does not need a particular learning, no more than visual perception, language or memory. In a sense, both points of view are correct, depending on the definition of musical understanding.

For those who have received an academic musical education, often the practice of musical improvisation is experienced as a difficult path to take, thinking that they need who knows what specific skills or paths of study. To improvise it is not necessary to have great theoretical/technical skills, on the contrary, a positive improvisational relationship with the instrument makes it even more interesting the deepening of the performing technique or the approach to perfection using that taste of discovery typical of the improviser.

Improvisation and play

Think about how a child learns to walk, or how children demonstrate a creative ability to adults now unknown. The strength of curiosity, the lack of preordained models, the thirst for experience push creativity to the highest levels. In order to learn to walk, a child must set in motion the coordination of countless thoughts and actions, to do so he must have reason and curiosity, otherwise he would not do it.

Music works in a similar way: when for the first time, when you have a series of indications from a teacher, you try to produce a sound, you are already improvising; obviously you will not give this experience an aesthetic or communicative sense, but, the control of an innumerable series of parameters, already complex just to produce a sound on an instrument, makes the idea of what could be the next step. Improvisation understood then as discovery before, and interaction after.