Research Note 009: Is improvisation just spontaneous composition?

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Well, yes and no…

Yes, when you improvise you are certainly generating musical ideas.
yes and these ideas contain what is referred to as “compositional elements”.
yes and as a skilled improviser, you are often constructing a solo in a sophisticated “compositional” manner.

But describing improvisation as “spontaneous composition” is an incomplete (and usually inaccurate) description of the improvisational process.

I’ve had a bit more time to think and read about this and I believe that in the most fundamental sense, the difference between improvisation and composition comes down to a matter of conscious deliberation.

Conscious deliberation gives us the ability to change perspective and reflect on the global and long-term implications of our decisions. Deliberative and conscious thoughts have to pass through the narrow straits of short-term memory, which hold only a few symbols (approximately six), and can attend to only one thing at a time (or perhaps two or three, by alternating attention). Recent research using functional molecular resonance imaging to record neuronal activity has shown that even simple acts (like reading a short sentence) employ a fairly intricate sequence of neural processes. Essentially, the rational or ‘composing’ mind tends to be, by nature, using experience and tradition to help drive decisions and the ‘improvising’ or non-conscious mind is tapping into a huge wealth of long-term memory and experience that is stored subconsciously. This would suggest that using improvisation to compose may lead to more unexpected ideas.

Take human speech, as an example. The vast majority of the time you are speaking (talking with friends, explaining something to someone, etc.), you are actually improvising. Sure, you might have a topic (like “where would you like to eat lunch?), but you aren’t planning, word for word, what you’re going to say. You’re simply following the immediate need to communicate, in a ‘flow’. In essence, you’re reacting in real-time.

Now contrast that with writing something. Writing gives you a chance to choose your words or overall message more carefully. You can take your ideas out of “real-time”, and consciously craft them with the kind of nuance that best suits your intentions.

Musical improvisation and composition have a similar relationship. When you improvise, you are reacting, moment to moment (whether you think you are, or not).

Scientifically, improvisation involves a largely different neurological process than composing. As neuroscientist and jazz pianist Charles Limb discovered in his research, the main parts of the brain that “light up” for a skilled improviser are the parts that have to do with immediate communication. Check out his TED talk below.

The skilled improviser is essentially in the realm of attempting to communicate. More specifically, to connect  with the other musicians with whom she is playing as well as the audience.

Communication involves not only taking into account the ideas that you have an impulse to express, but equally important, that which you are hearing and reacting to.

Listening is at the heart of it all.

The best improvisors in Jazz are those that listen deeply, and respond in accordance to what they hear. And of course, listening is a very active thing to do. To listen deeply is to be fully present.

And it’s not just about listening to the others with whom you’re playing. It’s also about listening deeply to yourself. It’s about not being stuck in the “deliberation” of your musical ideas at the expense of losing your improvisational flow.

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  • A few more research questions come to mind:
    How is improvisation connected to the purpose for Parker compositions?
    How do jazz composers meld composition and improvisation?

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