Improvisation (music)

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

As improvisation a form of musical performance is by individuals ( soloist ) or ensembles understood arise in the clay material and sound sequences in the execution of itself, and has not been fixed or little before writing. The musical sound events are due to the spontaneous idea and inspiration . It is basically possible to improvise without any musical training. Successful improvisation usually requires:

  • the (technical) mastery of the respective instrument or voice
  • the mastery of the musical parameters corresponding to the respective style and their laws
  • the potential to be creative with it.

General and improvisation in different cultures

Basics of improvisation in jazz and rock

Music is a sound language whose rules also apply to most improvisations. In a joint improvisation, musicians can communicate with each other in the language of the music. Language as a sound phenomenon uses vocabulary within the framework of grammatical rules and with differentiated phonetic possibilities of stress and pronunciation. In jazz and rock the vocabulary of improvisation is the so-called licks , the grammar of which is the theory of harmony, the emphasis is determined by the rhythm and the pronunciation becomes clearer through skillful phrasing.

Not every note of an improvisation arises spontaneously. Improvising musicians repeatedly use different tone sequences that are introduced into their improvisations and that give the player time and space to actually discover or invent something new at certain points. These tone sequences can come from the following sources:

1. Licks (proven and previously rehearsed sequences of notes, mostly from experienced improvising musicians)

2. "Erimprovised" material (meaning "good sounding" phrases gained from personal experience that the player discovered and memorized while improvising). This is the important, personal wealth of experience that decisively shapes the playing style of an improvising musician.

3. Quotes from themes of other pieces or known improvisations.

Differentiation from the composition

The composition the one hand represents a marked contrast to the improvisation, since the performance one often in musical notation precedes fixed elaboration. On the other hand, there are analogies between improvisation and composition: “The difference between composing and improvisation is that you have as much time as you want in the composition to think about what you want to say in 15 seconds while you in the improvisation only have 15 seconds. ”The task of the sound realization lies in both the improvisation and the composition with the interpreter . The author of the composed work , however, has the right to use it and can also defend himself against its unauthorized appropriation, alteration and modification (see plagiarism ). With improvisation, this is only possible insofar as it is recorded on sound carriers. There is an overlap between composition and improvisation when the creative process of creating a work is based on improvisation. Then, however, constant corrections and improvements can usually be incorporated into the composition process. It is not uncommon for a composer's fleeting handwriting to convey something of the spontaneity of musical inspiration and reveal something of the effort to capture the momentary incident. On the other hand, the results of improvisation can hardly be put into compositions and imitated, since here musical relationships can not only be explained from the development of the material and cannot be planned. The interaction is an important aspect of the nichtkalkulierbarer improvisation.

Whether improvisation was an archetype of music-making cannot be determined, but since composition is a phenomenon that is culturally very narrowly limited to the “classical” European music tradition, it is highly probable that a certain amount of improvisation was the rule when making music.

Historical development

In European music since the Renaissance or in music that has a historical connection with European tradition, including jazz, improvisation is usually based on a harmonic framework (for example the chord progression of a certain piece) or a melody . So far there are no reliable sources about improvisation in European music of antiquity. Improvisation in European music of the Middle Ages was mostly based on a melody, harmony was not yet known at that time. The scale on which the melody is based is the framework for improvisation. In the music of other cultures, for example Arabic , Turkish and Indian music , improvisations are often structured by certain scale models and rhythmic patterns. The music of sub-Saharan Africa is characterized by, among other things, highly complex rhythmic improvisation. In Indonesian gamelan music, only a few instruments improvise around the underlying patterns , recurring rhythmic, harmonic and melodic tone sequences. A core melody understood as an "inner melody" is played around.

In extreme cases, improvisation is attempted as a spontaneous game without any preconditions, as in certain forms of free jazz . For a long time these attempts could not be carried out because the stylistic rules of the game were of outstanding importance for jazz musicians. As can be seen in jazz and Indian music , these conditions are indeed so formative that the results, if the same material is used by the same musicians as the basis of two improvisations in quick succession, are astonishingly similar in terms of listening. It also shows that where there is improvisation in the collective , a very strict system of division of labor prevails.

What is generally referred to as classical music is almost always written down and only knows improvisation as a marginal phenomenon, e.g. B. in the ornamentation technique of the music of the thoroughbass age ( baroque music ) or in the cadences of instrumental solo concerts (see below "Classical and Romantic"). Collective improvisation is practically unknown here, as there are no formal rules that musicians can adhere to in order to improvise a “classical” piece. The requirements of such rules of the game could hardly be met due to the differentiated use of period, motivic development, modulations and counterpoint.

middle Ages

The preserved written music samples give only an insufficient idea of ​​the musical practice of the Middle Ages. Oral tradition was the basis for the most part. While in sacred music the basic repertoire was recorded in a variety of notations , from square notation to mensural notation , in secular music relatively few melodies have survived in unison notation. But even at the time of their recording, these only came to life by means of improvised performance techniques and, when performed today, require a high degree of empathy and knowledge of such singing and playing techniques. One of the most important sources is the music of the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, with which the western world came into closer contact during the course of the Crusades. To this day, the music of the Orient has been largely shaped by improvised solo and ensemble playing. The traveling minstrels of the Middle Ages were particularly influenced and shaped by this. Further sources for improvised polyphony can be found in some monastic manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Today's musicians are responsible for turning the meager musical texts into individually designed pieces of music. Preludes, interludes and aftermaths are improvised as well as forms of two-part play (drone, playing in fourth or fifth parallels, organum, free second part). From today's point of view, the situation (meanwhile written tradition of the melodies, e.g. in the “Codex verus”) shows parallels to the jazz improvisation based on the Realbook . In the musical Middle Ages scene, a number of melodies of the kind are now known that one can speak of medieval standards that one knows as a musician in the corresponding environment.


This era is characterized by polyphonic ensemble music. The pieces of music were mostly notated in elementary note values. Depending on the skills of the singers and instrumentalists, these were decorated with improvised diminutions . Pedagogical textbooks such as the recorder school by Silvestro Ganassi give numerous examples of common melody models. In addition to freer improvisations, organists and harpsichordists also cultivated the art of “dropping” vocal compositions, which was adapted from scratch to the possibilities of the instrument.


The professional playing of keyboard instruments such as the organ and harpsichord was performed far more improvisationally than it is today. In organist examinations, the play of prepared literature ("hand pieces") was frowned upon and led to disqualification. The subject of the test was a. also improvisation of fugues . Johann Sebastian Bach was famous for his ability to improvise on the organ. The competition with the French organist Louis Marchand , who, according to a legend that has been handed down several times, is said to have escaped comparison with Bach by fleeing, testifies to this, as does the audience in which King Frederick the Great asked him to improvise on a given topic .

The main form of such a composition based on improvisation was the toccata , which has its roots in trying out the possibilities of an organ in terms of playing technique. In chamber music and song accompaniment, the keyboard instrument usually played the role of figured bass on harpsichord and organ , which ideally was performed offhand. The player had a "figured bass", which indicated the bass line for the left hand and, with the help of numbers, the chords above it for the right hand. Just as spontaneously, the game was often enriched with ornaments. Particularly when playing the slow movements, improvisational embellishment through free manners was desired by both the soloist and the accompanist. This was especially true for the singers in opera and concert arias. The composers marked these passages with the fermata symbol . With the development of the solo instrumental concert, the so-called cadenza , one or more cuts, determined by the composer, was formed, at which the soloist could give free rein to his imagination, his need for expression or his virtuosity.

Classic and Romantic

The “fantasizing” on the piano (or in earlier times on the harpsichord), with which many important composers made a name for themselves ( Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , Ludwig van Beethoven , Frédéric Chopin ), was the subject of great admiration. In the second half of the 18th century there were attempts to construct machines for recording improvisations. B. the “Fantasiermaschine” by Johann Friedrich Unger from 1752 (technically first realized by Johann Hohlfeld in 1753); However, since the transfer of the recordings into normal musical text was very laborious, such devices have never achieved widespread use and no improvisations recorded in this way have survived. The term fantasy for a piano piece is not to be understood as meaning that an improvisation was subsequently reconstructed as a composition. Nevertheless, there are examples in which the impression actually arises that the process of “fantasizing” is being imitated in the composition. The Fantasy op. 77 by Ludwig van Beethoven comes very close to this aspect, in which the spontaneous “starting play” can be clearly heard, then the search for and discarding material already during the game, until finally a theme emerges that turns into variation suitable. A title such as “Sonata quasi una Fantasia” , which Beethoven gave to the sonata op. 27,2, popularly known as the “moonlight sonata” , reveals that the border to the firmly established forms of composed pieces of music can flow .

The cadenza in the classical solo concerto , which was usually given more space immediately before the end of the first movement, was something between the baroque practice of decorating and fantasizing . But here, too, it is true that the practiced, i.e. no longer improvised, and gradually the written cadenza prevailed, since the sudden improvisation in the vicinity of composed material represented an uncertainty factor that was countered with appropriate preparation of the cadenza. The tendency towards writing has been evidenced by notated cadences (from Mozart, Beethoven and others) since the Viennese Classic.

Improvisation on the organ played a bigger role (and still does in the 21st century). Important organists like Anton Bruckner were even able to improvise large-scale double fugues . Since Bruckner never recorded the results of his improvisations in writing, only the “ Prelude and Double Fugue ”, which his student Friedrich Klose composed based on a Bruckner improvisation , gives evidence of his art . Mostly, however, like on the piano, free fantasies were improvised. This practice was particularly widespread in France. Numerous works u. a. by César Franck , Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne are based on such improvisations.

New music

Occasionally, improvisation plays a larger, but also paradoxical role in the new music of the 20th century. In the early 1950s, new forms of interplay developed, and composers experimented with unusual forms of notation : for example John Cage , Sylvano Bussotti , Earle Brown , Roman Haubenstock-Ramati and many others. In the extreme case, the performers had a musical graphic available as a score, which contained no or only approximate references to what was actually to be played (concept of the "open form" e.g. in Earle Brown's composition Available Forms , 1961). It was largely up to them which tones, sounds and rhythms were to be generated. This also changed the concept of a musical work of art . This is no longer defined by its written form, but as a communication process. Professional performances by good interpreters who have developed their own style are generally still considered works by the author of a graphic score rather than works by the interpreters. In contrast, there is free improvisation, in which written or graphic specifications or specifications are completely dispensed with and the result depends solely on the musical horizon and the playing skills of the musicians.

The starting point for improvised solo and team play could also be verbally formulated texts, as in the case of Karlheinz Stockhausen's From the Seven Days , 1968, whereby Stockhausen was dependent on the cooperation of musicians who were familiar with the basics of the intuitive music he had developed . The transition field between composition and improvisation is a. Visible in the working method of the composer Peter Michael Hamel , who develops his musical ideas in the course of improvisation on the piano and is often guided by the musical contributions of his improvisation partners.

The increased importance that improvisation was occasionally given can also be seen as a reaction to the strict serialism , which determined all musical parameters with the utmost precision. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a number of composers began to allow the interpreters different degrees of freedom in execution in their works. These can be more aleatoric decisions, for example which part of the score to play or leave out, or the construction of situations that give the performer one or more musical parameters, but let him decide on the remaining parameters independently. The instructions in Piano Piece XI by Karlheinz Stockhausen are as follows: The player looks unintentionally at the sheet of paper and begins with any group he saw first; He plays these at any speed (always excluding the small printed notes), basic volume and touch, looks unintentionally to one of the other groups and plays them, (...) . This should create form in the game process without the interpreter improvising. The interpreters are rarely encouraged to improvise in the accompanying instructions from the composer. Thus, Bernd Alois Zimmermann in tempus loquendi from 1963 three inter-printed parts to choose from and encouraged "... from the set in the pieces Material own versions to improvise." More often are borderline cases that ultimately but always claim the primacy of composition . In Mauricio Kagel's Exotica from 1970, for example, when determining the rhythm and dynamics, the choice of tones is left to the performers. In Kagel's own words

"... the instrumental parts were recorded exclusively in permanent values ​​and volume levels as continuous rhythmic monodies, which the performers themselves should provide with pitches in any position."

Recently, virtuoso pianists have also emerged again in solo piano improvisation and have led to a revival of those playing forms that, for example , had been developed to the highest form by Franz Liszt . This included Friedrich Gulda and, more recently, Gabriela Montero , where the improvisations on the piano emerge together with the audience as a subject and become more and more extensive in their concerts. The music styles for improvisations - classical, blues, jazz, etc. a. - are used spontaneously. Michael Gees plays works from Bach to Satie in his concerts as adapting (i.e. making himself his own) improvisations. As a lied pianist at the Schwetzingen Festival in 2014, together with the soprano Anna Lucia Richter, he intuitively set texts by Andreas Gryphius to music.

In the last few decades independent scenes for free or new improvisation music have emerged between new music and free jazz .

Group improvisation

Under this title (also collective improvisation ), explicitly not as an individual, the violinist and Hindemith student Lilli Friedemann (1906–1991) worked across Germany since the 1950s, with musicians as well as with lay people and students (children). From 1968 on she did a teaching position at the Hamburg University of Music in the subject she had created . With the ensemble " Extempore " she led the group improvisation to the concert podium. In 1964 she founded the ring for group improvisation and wrote detailed papers about her work and principles of making music "without notes". When the Exploratorium Berlin , a center for improvised music and creative music pedagogy , was founded, the memory of Lilli Friedemann and her appreciation played an important role.

Church music

In the organ music of the 20th century a notable tradition of improvisation has been preserved, which has its roots in the organ playing of the 18th century and is of practical importance in liturgical organ playing up to the present day of the 21st century. In the study of church music , improvised liturgical organ playing has the rank of a major. Improvising church music is one of the regular tasks of a church musician. Particularly qualified players are also proficient in other forms of organ improvisation and sometimes improvise entire concerts. Well-known organ improvisers in the 20th and 21st centuries include Anton Heiller , Hans Haselböck , Charles Tournemire , Marcel Dupré , Pierre Cochereau and Pierre Pincemaille . Organists like Hans-Günther Wauer have also found ways to interact with other musicians since the late 1970s.


Improvisation is practically the constituent characteristic of jazz. The great jazz musicians first learned their art of improvisation by listening carefully and acting out. The ability to improvise over chord progressions has developed over decades and has reached a particularly high level of complexity in bebop . The saxophonist Charlie Parker should be mentioned as a pioneering pioneer . But even the musicians of the swing era could improvise on the harmonies of the pieces they played. They influenced and learned from one another. The development of jazz improvisation is the product of the achievements of many individual musicians who have continuously exchanged ideas and listened carefully to one another. In addition, many solos were completely transcribed, and most jazz artists confess to having followed in the footsteps of their role models before they later broke away from them and developed their own ideas. Guitarist Joe Pass, for example, like many of his colleagues, has reenacted Charlie Parker's solos. Parker is probably the most transcribed jazz musician, as can be seen in a well-known book publication with complete transcriptions of a large number of Parker solos, the so-called "Omnibook".

Later, the insights from the transcriptions were put into writing in many different teaching methods for jazz. These teaching methods (like jazz) are constantly evolving. Subareas of these teachings are Lick collections, the chord scale theory and jazz harmonic .

The following sheet music example shows the “sophisticated” system of accompaniment for a solo in the “standard game” of a traditional quartet . Even the line-up is an expression of a strict assignment of functions: the drums as a pure rhythm instrument that cannot generate pitches that could collide with those of the other players; the (double) bass , to which only the low register is assigned; Piano (or guitar ) as a chordal instrument ; as well as a single-part melody instrument in a relatively high register ( saxophone , trumpet ). Drums and bass play the basic rhythm. The drummer's improvisation arises from a series of invigorating ingredients such as breaks , which also clarify the formal progression and the periodic (e.g. through a break to a new chorus , i.e. another repetition of the harmony sequence of the song, the standard , which is improvised on .) As a rule, the bassist plays continuous quarters, which are occasionally supplemented by shorter note values, but rarely interrupted. In doing so, he “walks” improvising the tones that match the respective harmony, connected by chromatic nuances ( walking bass ). The basic pulse is occupied by the drums and even more by the bass. Therefore, the pianist or guitarist avoids this and instead sets his improvised chords to match the harmonic framework practically throughout as syncopation . As a rule, predictable patterns are avoided, but rather new rhythmic models are repeatedly added together. His playing is therefore emphatically non-linear, since the bass in the lower register and the soloist on the melody instrument in the higher register are responsible for the lines. The soloist has the greatest freedom in improvisation; his solo is the center of the action. Accompanied by the three other instruments, he develops his own melodic and rhythmic ideas. However, this is always done with due to being played harmony scale ( scale ) or sounds that do not belong to the appropriate scale, but stand by it in an effective context. When the pianist plays a solo, the right hand usually takes over the function of the melody instrument, the left hand that of the chord instrument.

Division of tasks in the classical jazz quartet ( Miles Davis : So What on Kind of Blue ): Paul Chambers accompanies
John Coltrane's solo with a walking bass, Bill Evans on the piano with rhythmically floating chords ( Jimmy Cobb's drum part is not transcribed )

In further developments of this concept, this form of division of tasks becomes less clear. On the same day , Scott LaFaro played completely different bass lines in the same piece in two different recordings, but both of them fit equally well into the overall picture. Despite the differences in the versions, the stylistic framework ensures an astonishingly similar hearing impression.

Scott LaFaro's bass part in the first version of "Gloria's Step" with the Bill Evans Trio (1961), immediately following the theme
Scott LaFaro's bass part in the same place in the second version of the same piece

In other styles of jazz, the distribution of tasks is different, but just as strict. The New Orleans jazz managed to let at least six musicians improvise at the same time through clear assignment of functions, but not all with the same degree of freedom.


In jazz there is also often vocal improvisation. In scat (also called scat-singing ), however, no linguistic content is transmitted, but rather existing instruments are imitated using onomatopoeic elements. Functionally, vocal improvisation is used more like an instrument. The story of the jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong is known that on February 26, 1926, while singing the song "Heebie Jeebies", his text sheet fell on the floor and he then continued to sing with Scat syllables so as not to ruin the recording. This was the first commercial recording of a scat solo, which does not mean that Louis Armstrong invented this way of singing that day (vaudeville and ragtime singer Gene Greene scatted ten years earlier), but he made scat popular and undisputed as the greatest master of scat singing.


In the 1970s, the Realbook was the first large collection of jazz standards , but the notation in the form of a lead sheet is limited to fixing the melody , chord changes and tempo . Accordingly, the real book (with its successors) is only used as an "improvisation template", but is widespread among jazz musicians.


In rock music improvisation became very important for a short time around 1967 in psychedelic music and so-called progressive rock . The early Pink Floyd , Soft Machine , Grateful Dead and the German band Can often used improvisation techniques that combined playing styles from the blues with sound experiments and live electronics. These forms were discarded by most of these groups after 1970. In bands closer to the blues, such as Deep Purple and Cream , improvisation was given a status comparable to that in jazz, in that the accompanied soloist made a name for himself with long solos. Jimi Hendrix can be seen as a pioneer for both developments in rock of the 1960s, who also achieved convincing results in both forms with his album Electric Ladyland .

However, improvisation has not retained its importance in rock music. The blues rock with the focus on improvisation on the electric guitar was culturally more connected with jazz ( Scott Henderson ). The development of hard rock took away the individual profile of improvisation. In other types of rock, too, sophisticated arrangements were made at the expense of improvisation ( Yes , Genesis ), even where prominent and style-defining instrumentalists such as Brian May in the Queen group took part .

Newer styles of rock, which, like punk , set themselves apart from the "bombast" of the 1970s, usually do not know improvisation. Either the musicians do not master it, do not strive for it, or the predominance of the arrangement remains .

Ethnic music

Improvisation plays a central role in the traditional music of many cultures. Here techniques of oral transmission have been preserved as a characteristic of tribal and ethnic music worldwide. Every performance of a piece of music or song is more or less an act of improvisation and is individually designed from the moment.


A jazz musician responded to a request to explain the difference between composition and improvisation in ten seconds: "For ten seconds of composition you have all the time in the world. For ten seconds of improvisation you have exactly ... ten seconds."

See also (alphabetically)


Web links

Notes and individual references

  1. ^ Peter Autschbach: Improvisation . Ed .: Peter Finger. Vol. 2. Fingerprint, Osnabrück 2011, ISBN 3-938679-46-8 , p. 2 ff .
  2. . &f =on
  3. Frederic Rzewski: Autonomy of the moment: a theory of improvisation . In: MusikTexte . Issue 86/87, 2000, OCLC 883258112 , pp. 41-45 .
  4. Friedrich Erhard Niedt: Musical handbook . 1710
  5. Johann Joachim Quantz: Attempting an instruction to play the flute traversière . P. 136.
  6. Mikesch W. Muecke, Miriam S. Zach: Essays on the intersection of music and architecture, Culicidae Architectural Press, 2007, p. 89 ff.
  7. Exploratorium Berlin [1]
  10. -and-started-improvising-syllables /
  11. ^ Andy Hamilton: Eric Lewis - Intents and Purposes: Philosophy and the Aesthetics of Improvisation. Londomn Jazz News, September 12, 2019, accessed September 12, 2019 .