You Were Lied To About Improvisation

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What is Improvisation?

This is a question that doesn’t get asked much. We just assume that people agree on what improvisation is.

When you are a student you will likely be asked to improvise before anyone actually gives you a clear definition of what that means. So it is understandable that so many people are confused about exactly what they’re supposed to be doing when it comes time to improvise.

So I’m going to give you the most clear definition I can. This is information that would have accelerated my own development had I known it early on, so pay attention, you’ll be glad you did.

What Improvisation is not

Let’s start with what it is not. Musical Improvisation in any style is not just making stuff up to play, even though you may have been told this at some point.

It is certainly not random finger wiggling on an instrument. And it is also not a matter of just playing the right notes over the given chord changes.

As students, you might be saying, “What?! That’s what I’ve been told a thousand times! Play the right scales and arpeggios over the chords! Now you’re telling me that’s not it?”.

Yes, sorry to tell you this, playing the right scales and arpeggios over chord changes is “technically” improvising, but it is not the version of improvisation that you are looking for or hearing on records.

Musical Improvisation is a Language

Musical Improvisation in any given style is a language and just like in a spoken language, it is not enough to just string words together that follow the rules of grammar.

For example, “Look up to millennium rumble glasses miniature book.”

That is a sentence I made up using random words and objects that I can see on my desk. It’s meaningless.

If I were to communicate using phrases like that one, it would be boring and weird. Nobody would pay any attention to what I was saying nor would they remember anything I said.

Even though I followed the rules of grammar and spoke clearly, it doesn’t work.

Now when you are improvising music and merely following the rules by playing the right notes over the chords, you will get the same results. What you play will sound boring, nobody will pay attention to you, and they won’t remember anything you played.

Musical Language

When you hear great musical improvisors it’s important to recognize that they are not just making stuff up and following the rules of harmony.

Good improvisation sounds good to us, when it has familiar patterns and phrases that we can understand as a musical language.

There are ways of speaking music that are universally understood by everyone. Language and vocabulary that comes out of the blues for example is universal, everyone knows what you are saying when you communicate with the blues.

Simple diatonic melodies like the ones found in nursery rhymes and popular music are also universal and easily understood by everyone.

There are types of music that use more sophisticated language and vocabulary that are not as accessible or universally understood by the masses. Take bebop or some modern classical music for examples. These require a more developed ear in the same way that some poets and writers may be difficult for most people to get into.

So musical improvisation is speaking a musical language.

When you improvise, you want to be communicating with your audience using vocabulary that they will understand. There are infinite ways to do this and in the process you will be showing off your beautiful sound, sense of rhythm, technique and creativity.

But How do I Learn This Musical Vocabulary?

You learn it the same way you learned the vocabulary you speak with. We learn this by listening, and mimicking what we hear.

In music we have a wonderful freedom to pick and choose the vocabulary we want to adopt as our own.

Maybe for you, that’s the blues or bebop or baroque counterpoint or a combination of all of the above. The musical vocabulary you choose to communicate and improvise with will be familiar to your audience and at the same time, unique to you.

This vocabulary can come from anywhere you choose. Just start by learning music that is meaningful to you.

Improvisation Exercise You Should Do Today

I want you to think of the music that made made you want to become a musician. It might be a song, or a particular artist or an album. It could be the theme song to your favorite TV show, doesn’t matter.

Go find that recording, and learn that music on your instrument by ear.

Might take you an hour, a day,  or a week, it doesn’t matter. Once you learn to play that music by ear, you gain ownership of it. It’s like when you are learning a spoken language. You have to use new words when speaking in order to gain ownership of them and add those words to your vocabulary.

Once you begin to gain ownership of the music that inspires you most, it is at that point, that you begin to develop your own personal vocabulary and you understand what improvisation actually means.

This is why improvising musicians transcribe solos from their favorite musicians. It is the process that all improvisors go through to learn how to do it.

If you do not listen to those that came before you and mimic them, you cannot learn to speak the musical language in any style of music.

Just like when you are a toddler, if you do not listen to your parents speaking to you and mimic the sounds they make, you cannot learn to speak.

Whatever you decide to say is entirely up to you.

Finding Your Unique Voice

There is a very uninformed argument that always comes up which is critical of learning improvisation in this way. You may have even heard this at school.

I know, I heard, as a young musician that to be a good improvisor meant never playing the same thing twice and not sounding like anyone else.

That is quite literally the opposite of what being a good improvisor is.

The reason you can recognize your favorite soloists when you hear them is precisely because they consistently speak with their own personal vocabulary. That repetition is essential.

It is also quite literally impossible to sound exactly like anyone else when improvising. Even if that was your mission, and I have never met a musician who aspired to becoming a carbon copy of someone else, you couldn’t do it. We all have our own unique voice and that voice always comes through in the end.

Quick Summary

Improvisation is communicating using an established musical language.

Yes, you need to learn your rules of grammar which are the scales, arpeggios, chord progressions, rhythms etc.

But just like with spoken language, in order to say something meaningful, you have to use vocabulary and phrases which are familiar to your audience.

Learning to improvise is done through a process of listening and mimicking the musicians you love.

Through this process, over time, we discover our own unique voice.

It is one of the great joys in life and if you want to learn more about how I can help you along in this process please visit me at where we have tons of resources for players of all levels.

I broke down the process of learning to improvise into a 7 part framework. Go watch this video next for a step by step guide to exactly what you should do to start learning to improvise from square one.

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