Musical improvisation is the creative activity of immediate musical composition, which combines performance with communication of emotions and instrumental technique as well as spontaneous response to other musicians. Thus, musical ideas in improvisation are spontaneous, but may be based on chord changes in Western music
Because improvisation is a performative act and depends on instrumental technique, improvisation is a skill. There are musicians who never improvised and there are musicians who have devoted their entire lifes to improvisation.
Throughout the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, improvisation was a highly valued skill. Francesco Landini, Adrian Willaert, Diego Ortiz, Frescobaldi, J.S. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and many other famous composers and musicians were known especially for their improvisational skills. Improvisation might have played an important role in the monophonic period. The earliest treatises on polyphony, such as the Musica enchiriadis (ninth century), make plain that added parts were improvised for centuries before the first notated examples. However, it was only in the fifteenth century that theorists began making a hard distinction between improvised and written music. Many classical forms contained sections for improvisation, such as the cadenza in concertos, or the preludes to some keyboard suites by Bach and Handel, which consist of elaborations of a progression of chords, which performers are to use as the basis for their improvisation. Handel, Scarlatti, and Bach all belonged to a tradition of solo keyboard improvisation that was not limited to variations, but included the concerto form, typically with moving voices in both hands, occasionally exploring fugue.
Although melodic improvisation was an important factor in European music from the earliest times, the first detailed information on improvisation technique appears in ninth-century treatises instructing singers on how to add another melody to a pre-existent liturgical chant, in a style called organum. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, improvised counterpoint over a cantus firmus (a practice found both in church music and in popular dance music) constituted a part of every musician's education, and is regarded as the most important kind of unwritten music before the Baroque period.
Following the invention of music printing at the beginning of the sixteenth century, there is more detailed documentation of improvisational practice, in the form of published instruction manuals, mainly in Italy. In addition to improvising counterpoint over a cantus firmus, singers and instrumentalists improvised melodies over ostinato chord patterns, made elaborate embellishments of melodic lines, and invented music extemporaneously without any predetermined schemata. Keyboard players likewise performed extempore, freely formed pieces.
There is little or no Alberti bass in baroque keyboard music, and instead the accompanying hand supports the moving lines mostly by contrasting them with longer note values, which themselves have a melodic shape and are mostly placed in consonant harmony. This polarity can be reversed—another useful technique for improvisation—by changing the longer note values to the right hand and playing moving lines in the left at intervals—or with moving lines in both hands, occasionally. This shift of roles between treble and bass is another definitive characteristic. Finally, in keeping with this polarity, the kind of question and answer which appears in baroque music has the appearance of fugue or canon. This method was a favorite in compositions by Scarlatti and Handel especially at the beginning of a piece, even when not forming a fugue.
Improvised accompaniment over a figured bass was a common practice during the Baroque era, and to some extent the following periods.
There is a tradition of improvised organ competition, because of the more solid foundation of organ improvisation.
Baroque melodic lines, in any case, are similar to the later homophonic styles, except that more passing tones are added. In Volume II of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer discussed at some length the frequent shifts in baroque melodic passages between tonic and dominant.
To begin learning to improvise short fugues, it is helpful merely to play a fugue subject and attempt to add an answer in another voice, i.e., to play an exposition. Or one may begin by playing a one voice improvisation with occasional statements of the subject. If the two voice fugues are practiced consistently, the next step is to add a third voice.
The introductory gesture of "tonic, subdominant, dominant, tonic," however, much like its baroque form, continues to appear at the beginning of high-classical and romantic piano pieces (and much other music) as in Haydn's sonata Hob.16/No. 52 and Beethoven's sonata opus 78.
Beethoven and Mozart cultivated slightly new musical moods. These are often indicated by mood markings such as con amore, appassionato, cantabile, and expressivo. In fact, it is perhaps because improvisation is spontaneous that it is akin to the communication of love.
During Beethoven's time, however, when improvisation was practically a fad, there was a kind of trading which can be compared to jazz. Competitors would improvise, taking turns with the entire form of a tune (or, though it is not known for certain, parts of it as in the case of jazz). This process continued usually until one player appeared to vanquish the other by his creativity.
Mozart left an unfinished Fantasia in D minor, and a harmonic prelude, and sets of variations including Variations on "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman". Beethoven also published an even larger collection of variation sets, though he regretted not finishing his planned "piano method" which may have included material on improvisation. Beethoven won many tough improvisatory battles over such rivals as Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Joseph Woelfl, but little is known about many of these events, besides published themes with variations.
Adorno described Mozart's musical texture as an unshakable formal rigor always pushed to the brink of apparent chaos. Beethoven's, on the other hand, he described with somewhat more reverence as a "continuum of nothing" indicating again its extemporaneous quality.
Though there were exceptions, some such new views were opposed to improvisation as belonging to a casual, non-intellectual creative process, or were too pre-occupied to take it up. At the same time, the romantic period still produced composers who were very much interested in improvisation, such as Brahms.
Finally, improvisation was a diversion of the aristocracy, whose self-identity changed dramatically after the early 19th century.
These trends appear to have had their beginnings in the period just after Beethoven, but only finally reached completion in the last quarter of the 19th century, which also coincides closely with the emergence of atonality. The process also suggests a correlation between improvisation and the popularity and familiarity of music, linking it to the greatly varied melodies of opera and folk music.
It is very helpful in classical improvisation, as it is in jazz playing, to break down the major and minor scales by assigning alternative harmonies for each note of the scale. To make this task even simpler, on any instrument, one may begin by playing single notes and experimenting with possible accompaniment harmonies for them as played by a pianist. This may seem to lead to a habitual and oversimplified chordal left hand for the solo pianist, but there are many ways to avoid such constraints. The left hand harmonization can be reversed, for example, by harmonizing bass notes with two or more notes in the right hand. If bass notes are played a few octaves below a chord, for example, this does not imply that the bass notes become melodic, rather, more of the harmonization has merely been shifted to the right hand.
The first four notes of the major scale, for example, can be harmonized as I, V, I, V7, or I, v (minor), I, IV, or I, V, I, IV, or I, V, vi, ii. Homophonic structure such as this is one of the first steps to improvisation, and it is also the basis of some of the idioms common in mid-18th century homophony.
Another useful technique is the harmonization or adding of tones directly within melodic lines. This may involve the use of extra passing tones in a repeating pattern, or a series of arpeggios.
Typically, the phrase leading to an authentic cadence in Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and to some extent in Beethoven, is preceded by a deceptive cadence on the submediant, which is also minor (Aeolian mode) to be answered by the authentic cadence. In this case question and answer taken together can be thought of as one phrase.
Improvisers might also reverse the method of harmonization by creating melodies over existing harmonic progressions, such as in many of Bach's Preludes from the Well-tempered Clavier, and many other ground basses or passacaglias such as the Spanish Folia. An improvisor who wishes to become more serious about playing variations might then try some of Mozart's arias, which at one time were prime territory. More freedom and inspiration might be derived from applying alternative sections or endings to various sonatas, sonatinas and other works of the 18th or 19th century.
Modulation involves the distance of certain harmonies from the tonic triad, and how one might arrive at and depart from harmonies, via cadences and phrases. It treats music like a harmonic map in which harmonies are destinations or residences. This is important for understanding classical idioms but it does not mean that one must imitate exactly any particular composer. Modulation is greatly aided by the Circle of Fifths, but in two different senses. The true circle of fifths is simply the entire array of possible tonic destinations, in order. A diatonic circle, on the other hand, is used mostly for intermittent sequences, forming phrases that follow the circle in a pleasing pattern. The circle of fifths itself may be used for this. But in this case it is usually found in a broad sequence that has more tension in its transitions (Mozart's 24th Piano Concerto, K. 491, first movement, mm. 338-350).
Though classical music makes use of modes in several ways, it generally differs from jazz, however, in the following way. In both classical and jazz there are frequent accidentals, but in jazz, many of the transitions that give rise to these are more streamlined. Jazz, therefore, is more modal.
Classical improvisors tend to impose minor scales within major key phrases. For example, the supertonic and submediant are outlined by melodic lines using the melodic minor—not the modes that correspond to the tonic key signature.
Jazz is more free in the alteration of scales. This is yet more the case in later jazz. (Many late romantic and early modern composers, however, such as Rachmaninov, make harmonic use of modes that are of linear use in jazz such as the fifth mode of the melodic minor, or Mixolydian flat-6).
Mozart, on the other hand, experimented with modes a great deal, in particular toward the end of the first movement of the Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491.
Despite these beliefs improvisation formed part of Gould's practicing and even recording, in the music of Richard Strauss. The crisis of music theory, however, was one of the primary reasons Gould focused on interpretation as an art in studio recording. In post-baroque music he often found traditional interpretation stale and boring. Gould's technique, which convinced many listeners, became conspicuous in some areas other than Bach and Beethoven. For example, he felt that Mozart could be hackneyed enough, even to cast doubt on the composer's own authority for form and development.
Many varied scales and their modes can be used in improvisation. These mainly depend on the nature of the harmonic framework. Against a C Minor seventh chord, for example, an improvisor would usually have a choice of using C Dorian, C Aeolian, C blues, and others, depending on the situation and personal taste. Chord changes are very important in jazz improvisation as well. Whole solos can be built around chord tones.
In the bebop era of jazz in the early 1950s there was a common theme of urgency and technical proficiency. The modal era of jazz moved the harmonic framework for a piece from the fast, dynamic chord progressions of bebop to more static, relaxed chords with longer durations. Free jazz performers eschew the explicit harmonic framework for improvisation; the harmony in free jazz is less rigid and less traditional.
Illinois Jacquet, for example, is best known for a single solo on the tune Flying Home, and such solos are often transcribed. They are often not written down in the process, but they help musicians practice the jazz idiom. Charlie Parker's improvisations were distinctive, helping to shape the bebop period. Though it is helpful to transcribe on one's own, Parker's solos are often studied in a published collection known as the Omni Book, and groups such as Supersax arrange his solos with their own harmonic backing.
While the first half of the twentieth century is marked by an almost total absence of actual improvisation in art music, since the 1950s, contemporary composers have placed fewer restrictions on the improvising performer, using techniques such as vague notation (for example, indicating only that a certain number of notes must sound within a defined period of time). New Music ensembles formed around improvisation were founded, such as the Scratch Orchestra in England; Musica Elettronica Viva in Italy; Lukas Foss's Improvisation Chamber Ensemble at the University of California, Los Angeles; Larry Austin's New Music Ensemble at the University of California, Davis; the ONCE Group at Ann Arbor; the Sonic Arts Group; and Sonics, the latter three funding themselves through concerts, tours, and grants. Significant pieces include Foss's Time Cycles (1960) and Echoi (1963).
Other composers working with improvisation include Pierre Boulez, Cornelius Cardew, Alvin Curran, Stuart Dempster, Hugh Davies, Karlheinz Essl, Vinko Globokar, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Richard Teitelbaum, Christian Wolff, Vangelis, La Monte Young, John Zorn and Yitzhak Yedid.
Several pianists also teach classical improvisation and perform, such as David Dolan, William Goldstein, Yitzhak Yedid and Eric Barnhill.
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