The Role of Improvisation in Musical Freedom

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As a musician, the possibilities for creativity are almost endless, yet it is in no other style than that of improvisation that one can explore in real-time, musically, the energetic flow of the mind, body, and heart, unified as one impulse. Also, there is no more efficient way to practice than to sit down and play, without a necessary goal that one is subservient to, beyond the act of playing itself. Every second of your time will be invested in producing something that you are listening to yourself, assessing its quality, and modulating your playing accordingly. Some time can and often should be spent by any musician, breaking down specific techniques and exercises, or even learning entire pieces of repertoire composed in advance by them or others. Nevertheless, the activity of improvising, is a form of composing and exploring, in the moment, the depths and possibilities of an instrument, and the artist’s frame of mind, and this deserves a significant amount of practice time, for one who is truly seeking to be an artist focused on original creativity, rather than mere reproduction.

In many genres of music, we find improvisation respected and showcased; from Baroque to Rock to Jazz. However, it is not often taught in its simplest form, as a cherished and valuable art, partly because it needs no teaching, and because its revolutionary power for music is not sufficiently utilized. Improvisation is truly the most self-motivated and expressive branch of music, that taps into the innermost passions and sensibilities of the artist, free of any imposed order. We can see in more structured implementations of improvisation, such as the styles mentioned, there is usually still a framework in place, on which freedom in the moment is to be subordinated.

For an individual teaching himself to improvise, there is no specific, set structure that should be used. He may develop his own over time, but to do so prematurely and from without, would be to limit him or herself. As a result of the status quo, our daily lives are already enslaved to the confines of society’s plans for us to a considerable degree. The goal in at least some of our creative endeavors should be to remove virtually all limitations, so that our ideas are open to come forth and expand. To methodically place yourself at an instrument, and endeavor to produce new ideas, to express musical truth, with no intention of writing down, or consciously committing to memory much of anything, is guaranteed to become a perpetual motion machine of skill accretion, cathartic outlet, and artistic fulfillment.

To see improvisation as free from boundaries is not to say that it is necessarily unrefined, uncoordinated, or undisciplined. It is a skill to be developed like any other, and of course some beauty can be found at virtually all skill levels, though of somewhat different aesthetic potentials. Yet it retains fewer limitations at all levels than more structured forms of music. In its raw form, improvisation is about accepting that in every person who can appreciate music, is a musician, waiting to be born and nourished. This is, after all, how every accomplished musician starts; as a novice with no training, no proved ability; a blank slate. It is only through others’ instruction, and his own volition, that the musician is shaped by society and himself. The presumption that music is something one needs to be taught from outside sources should not apply to music altogether. Adhering to this completely could rob the individual personality of fulfilling its instinct to analyze, experiment, and discover music for itself, using an instrument as its platform. This is the true nature of a musical instrument; it is a tool of expressing art, emotion, thought, as it pertains to the person using it.

I have had some great music teachers in my life; I certainly advocate for a formal musical education, to anyone interested. Yet I found something lacking in most of these, which was any overt encouragement to create and improvise. This is easy to understand the reason for, because a traditional music teacher operates as a business person, trading education pertaining to their expertise, that is usually kept within the constraints of procedure and repertoire, most often in the form of sheet music from various composers, to be absorbed and faithfully performed. This is the generic nature of classical musicianship, as its task is to produce highly trained recitation experts; any interpretive creativity is strictly subordinated to the music on the page. A teacher of a different genre does often stray from this, for example in Jazz, where one would focus to a significant degree on improvisation, although again there would almost always be some intended structure which is not to be compromised. What is missing from almost all musical education, probably because it requires little supervision and pontification, is the space for true, uncritical improvisation, which has no limits and desires only to create. For this, it is not enforcement and motivation from externally that is required, but instead it is self-discipline, and personal drive which make all the difference.

With music, one is limited first by the instrument, and the human imagination, before any aesthetic value systems are imposed. From every great composer in history, there have sprung surprising elements of inventiveness, that followed from approaching music in radically different ways from what was previously known and accepted. This in turn became the standard to follow in subsequent eras. Without accessing this flow of invention, it is easy to turn exclusively to work that has stood the test of time, to inspire derivative works, or to repeat history through reproduction. In Classical music, we find an obsession with the past, and a slavish reiteration of its compositions, some masterpieces, others merely pieces.

Even more experimental composition is commonly approached within the stylistic bounds and conventions of music theory. Artists are encouraged and challenged to make new work, yet they are taught to first learn the conventions, to first know what the rules are so that they can be broken, as if this linear process is absolutely necessary, always paying credit to tradition and establishment. This is not always such a terrible thing, but seldom is it abandoned, and how can this be the only way of spurring creativity? Rarely do we find musical education without this top-down hierarchical model being implemented, one where teacher is master and student is disciple, all in respective adherence to a grandfathered canon. Given that music is similar in some ways to a science as well as an art, real experimentation must be done, rather than only research and repetition.

What if there were a musical education discipline, which focused first and foremost on one thing: the creative spirit; and did so explicitly, as its mission statement? This could be applied to all genres of music, including Classical. Is this not the single most crucial motivation of every great composer and artist’s work; bringing the soul of music alive? The aim here is not to sacrifice other important aspects of music, such as technique or theory, but merely to subordinate them to motivating creative ideas from the start, to place the prior works of others in service, as assistance for the developing musician, rather than to make him their servant. Striving for originality will require that influences are only to be used as inspiration, not for carbon copy. This allows an individual’s music and playing to speak entirely for itself, and stand on its own. As work which can be improvised, it will always be original, and needs little introduction or explanation, has no score, asks no justification; it simply is, as an extension of the musician, as an ability constantly evolving. It need not be the only aspect of every musician, but it deserves to be there in some capacity for everyone who so desires; and in some major presence, for many.

First, we can propose to allow for all musical possibilities, all ways of communicating emotion, feeling, passion, art, through sound, and seek to welcome them into reality. Along the way, we can listen to others’ expressions, from past and present, and to ourselves, always. We can learn from the past, but not wholly repeat it. Thus music takes form as an organic process, with improvisation playing a large role in education and study. The emphasis here is on performance of music by the creator, without a paramount need to memorize precisely any scores or routines crafted by others, and this taps directly into the heart, to be expressed without such an emphasis on mechanical memorization of familiar repertoire in an echo-chamber of cultural mimicry. This teaches versatility, flexibility, generosity, originality, and forgiveness, in the spirit of the musician and the listener. Surely this is a humanistic model of musical study, yet it may be no less robust in its ability to catalyze and vitalize the people involved. A performer needs not waste hours on mundane exercises or memorization with no personal significance, which form a bulk of music education of a conventional variety. Everything spent on practice can end up being implemented somehow in creating original work.

Simple in its conception, to improvise well involves perseverance and depth, to raise to higher and higher levels of quality. Even tried and true patterns of playing developed by the individual are constantly being re-envisioned and retooled, and any performance is essentially new while building on previous foundations. This is the kind of musical philosophy that keeps Jazz so vital and loved. It’s the ornamental pulse of the Baroque era, which encouraged generous amounts of improvisation from instrumentalists, knowing that these unique, impromptu cadenzas and embellishments gave the compositions life. It’s the raw, unfettered power of rock music that makes performers want to bring solos and instrumental sections to fresh exuberance in concert. It’s capturing lightning in a bottle in a systematic way. Also, it ensures that musicians are kept as individuals. They are in this way not dispensable, replaceable, malleable recipients of an institutional template. What they are doing cannot be predicted in advance, nor can it be copied in the future. It can and should be recorded, enjoyed, and studied by others. Yet, this popular idea of human being as player-piano, into which society inserts sheet music and has it played back to them with minimal room for creativity, can sometimes become overemphasized. There is a place for that kind of study, and probably always will be, but it cannot be the only place for classically-focused or otherwise earnestly-inclined musicians. The world of music may need to grow and change for this to happen. I believe every willing person who is a non-musician nevertheless has the potential to be one, and can find joy from unleashing their inner creativity. This can, and quite often should happen with minimal attention to any protocol. Accomplished musicians of more rehearsed styles can dive into improvisation and benefit greatly from it.

I feel that in any education program, learning to improvise could be assimilated as an essential requirement. It ensures that the musician is not doomed to become a cold automaton. I suspect this attitude would make the notion of becoming a musician more accessible for the average person, who may be a music lover. It would allow them to unlock the true purpose of musicianship for themselves, the reason why people started composing in the first place, which was to live out their creative, expressive freedom, and bring new artwork into the world, directly from the source. These are the keys to the kingdom of music; unlock your inner musician.

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