Improvisation in Music: Is that What Your Soul is Saying or are You Just Regurgitating?

As a fan of all kinds of music, I've seen a fair share of concerts ranging from the heaviest metal to the quietest folk to the funkiest jazz. I enjoy all kinds of concerts but there are always certain ones that stand out as extremely compelling and exciting. These concerts are the ones that involve a lot of improvisation. There is something significantly more exciting about a dynamic show that is ever changing than a show where you know the band probably played it nearly the same, note for note, the night before. I believe that without improvisation we're missing the point of music; to be an expression of the soul.

What is Improvisation?

When you improvise in music, you're basically making it up as you go, or writing music on the spot. Instead of following a preset structure or pattern of notes, you develop your own melody or counter melody on the spot while you're playing the song.

You see improvisation in its purest form in jazz because jazz is based around various soloists each taking their turn to improvise something compelling. Classical has the least amount of leeway for improvisation because typically you are performing a piece of music as written. Still, by developing your own take on dynamics and expression you can still inject some new elements into the performance. In modern rock and roll, you typically see improvisation in the form of solos, or lead parts although not nearly as much these days as in the 1960s and 1970s.

No matter what kind of music, what you add to it and develop during the performance is what makes that performance alive, dynamic and more exciting.

Why music needs improvisation?
Music seems to be the most direct connection between the human soul and the "real world." It crosses all boundaries by evoking emotions and communicating ideas without necessarily using words or language. Musicians can evoke and express any emotion they choose by playing the right notes with the right inflection.

In a live performance, by simply changing certain aspects of a song, certain inflections, a musician can take the same song and evoke a new emotion with every performance. These changes are a direct expression of the musician and a direct link to their soul. Improvisation allows the largest range of freedom of expression foe the musician, allowing them to express exactly what they want at any given moment.

Without improvisation, whether through the smallest changes in inflection, or large changes in chord progression or melody, a live performance is just a stale reproduction of what the composer intended and was written/recorded. Why go see a live performance when you could hear the same thing by listening to the recording? Music needs improvisation to allow the musicians to perform the piece as an expression of their soul and give dynamic and exciting performances.

Why should you develop improvisational skills?

As a musician it is important to develop and practice improvisation because it make music more enjoyable to play, allows for greater expression and increases your skill. Music lives in the soul and by adding a little improvisation to our music, we can take an ordinary song and make it an expression of our soul and what that song means to us.

Improvisation also makes performances that much more dynamic and unique. Anyone can practice a piece a million times and play it note perfect but it is only a regurgitation of what they learned, it doesn't have any soul, excitement or feeling. True musicians take that piece and make it their own and then when they play it for an audience, that audience gets to see a glimpse of the musician's soul and passion as the musician takes the song in whatever direction they see fit.

Improvisation is basically writing music off the cuff and so it can help with your songwriting or composition as well. It can help you learn your instrument better as you begin to recognize what effect certain techniques have on how the music sounds and what kind of emotions they seem to evoke. Then when you want to evoke those emotions to express how you're feeling, you'll know what techniques will be most effective.

How you can develop improvisational skills as a musician?

The easiest way to improve improvisation is to practice doing it. This can be as simple as taking a practice session and instead of rehearing a piece just playing whatever you feel. You can try to write a melody and then improvise upon it, start with an existing song and add your own touches, or simply begin from scratch and let your improvisation run free.

Make sure to either play with others or with a backing track of music. This helps to keep time and develop the skills to be able to express exactly what you want on command. It's easy to improvise something effective when you have time to work on it, but to be able to that during a song when it is necessary takes practice.

Try and listen to all kinds of music as you might find little note progressions and improvisation techniques that you can develop, expand upon and use in your own playing. At the same time, don't get too caught up in what others play. Each person is unique and so how they express themselves through an instrument will be unique. You don't have to use a million notes, or any specific technique just because thats how your idol plays. It's important to develop your own style.

Don't be afraid to take risks with your playing and be adventurous. Those moments where we let loose, put it all on the line and take a risk with our playing are pure expressions of the soul.

It is important to have fun and play what you like, but also be open to new techniques as otherwise your musical advancement might stagnate.

Learning to improvise on any instrument takes time and an intimate knowledge of the instrument. It is not easy, but in time your instrument can become a direct link to your soul, so that when you want to express yourself, you can easily and freely.

Conclusions About Improvisation

For me, music without improvisation isn't really worth the effort. A robot or a machine could just as easily create the same effect. When a musician improvises though, that makes the performance dynamic, exciting and what makes me keep going to concerts year after year.

As a musician, I can attest to how difficult it can be to learn to improvise on any instrument, but the way it allows you to express yourself is worth it. There is no greater feeling than to be able to take a song in a new direction and add your own emotion and soul to it on the spot.

If you're a musician, then I encourage you to further explore improvisation within your music and recognize it's importance. If you're not a musician, than maybe this has inspired you to become one, or just to recognize the important improvisation plays in creating powerful dynamic music.

- The Soul of Rock 'n' Roll is a division of Fifth Column Media - www.fifthcolumnmedia.com -