Musical improvisation

Improvisation plays a central role in jazz; musicians learn progressions using scale and chord tones (Pictured is Johnny Hodges)

Musical improvisation (also known as musical extemporization) is the creative activity of immediate ("in the moment") musical composition, which combines performance with communication of emotions and instrumental technique as well as spontaneous response to other musicians.[1] Sometimes musical ideas in improvisation are spontaneous, but may be based on chord changes in classical music[1] and many other kinds of music. One definition is a "performance given extempore without planning or preparation."[2] Another definition is to "play or sing (music) extemporaneously, by inventing variations on a melody or creating new melodies, rhythms and harmonies."[3] Encyclopædia Britannica defines it as "the extemporaneous composition or free performance of a musical passage, usually in a manner conforming to certain stylistic norms but unfettered by the prescriptive features of a specific musical text. Improvisation is often done within (or based on) a pre-existing harmonic framework or chord progression. Improvisation is a major part of some types of 20th-century music, such as blues, jazz, and jazz fusion, in which instrumental performers improvise solos, melody lines and accompaniment parts.

Throughout the eras of the Western art music tradition, including the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, improvisation was a valued skill. 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), indicate 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.[4]

Some classical music forms contained sections for improvisation, such as the cadenza in solo 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, in which they improvised on the harpsichord or pipe organ. In the Baroque era, performers improvised ornaments and basso continuo keyboard players improvised chord voicings based on figured bass notation. However, in the 20th and early 21st century, as "common practice" Western art music performance became institutionalized in symphony orchestras, opera houses and ballets, improvisation has played a smaller role. At the same time, some contemporary composers from the 20th and 21st century have increasingly included improvisation in their creative work.

In Indian classical music, improvisation is a core component and an essential criterion of performances. In Indian, Afghani, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi classical music, raga is the "tonal framework for composition and improvisation."[5] The Encyclopædia Britannica defines a raga as "a melodic framework for improvisation and composition.[6]

In Western music

Medieval period

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.[4] 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.[7]

Renaissance 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.[8] 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.[9] Keyboard players likewise performed extempore, freely formed pieces.[10]

Baroque period

The kinds of improvisation practised during the Renaissance—principally either the embellishing of an existing part or the creation of an entirely new part or parts—continued into the early Baroque, though important modifications were introduced. Ornamentation began to be brought more under the control of composers, in some cases by writing out embellishments, and more broadly by introducing symbols or abbreviations for certain ornamental patterns. Two of the earliest important sources for vocal ornamentation of this sort are Giovanni Battista Bovicelli’s Regole, passaggi di musica (1594), and the preface to Giulio Caccini’s collection, Le nuove musiche (1601/2)[11]

Melodic instruments

Eighteenth-century manuals make it clear that performers on the flute, oboe, violin, and other melodic instruments were expected not only to ornament previously composed pieces, but also spontaneously to improvise preludes.[12]

Keyboard, lute, and guitar

The pattern of chords in many baroque preludes, for example, can be played on keyboard and guitar over a pedal tone or repeated bass notes. Such progressions can be used in many other structures and contexts, and are still found in Mozart, but most preludes begin with the treble supported by a simple bass. J.S. Bach, for example, was particularly fond of the sound produced by the dominant seventh harmony played over, i.e., suspended against, the tonic pedal tone.[13]

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.[14]

Organ improvisation and church music

see Category:Organ improvisers

According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the "monodic textures that originated about 1600 … were ready-made, indeed in large measure intended, for improvisational enhancement, not only of the treble parts but also, almost by definition, of the bass, which was figured to suggest no more than a minimal chordal outline."[15] Improvised accompaniment over a figured bass was a common practice during the Baroque era, and to some extent the following periods. Improvisation remains a feature of organ playing in some church services and are regularly also performed at concerts.

Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Sebastian Bach were regarded in the Baroque period as highly skilled organ improvisers. During the 20th century, some musicians known as great improvisers such as Marcel Dupré, Pierre Cochereau and Pierre Pincemaille continued this form of music, in the tradition of the French organ school. Maurice Duruflé, a great improviser himself, transcribed improvisations by Louis Vierne and Charles Tournemire. Olivier Latry later wrote his improvisations as a compositions, for example Salve Regina.

Classical period

Keyboard improvisation

Classical music departs from baroque style in that sometimes several voices may move together as chords involving both hands, to form brief phrases without any passing tones. Though such motifs were used sparingly by Mozart, they were taken up much more liberally by Beethoven and Schubert. Such chords also appeared to some extent in baroque keyboard music, such as the 3rd movement theme in Bach's Italian Concerto. But at that time such a chord often appeared only in one clef at a time, (or one hand on the keyboard) and did not form the independent phrases found more in later music. Adorno mentions this movement of the Italian Concerto as a more flexible, improvisatory form, in comparison to Mozart, suggesting the gradual diminishment of improvisation well before its decline became obvious.[16]

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 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.[17]

Mozart and Beethoven

Beethoven and Mozart left excellent examples of what their improvisations were like, in the sets of variations and the sonatas which they published, and in their written out cadenzas (which illustrate what their improvisations would have sounded like). As a keyboard player, Mozart competed at least once in improvisation, with Muzio Clementi.[18] Beethoven won many tough improvisatory battles over such rivals as Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Daniel Steibelt, and Joseph Woelfl.[19]

Romantic period


Extemporization, both in the form of introductions to pieces, and links between pieces, continued to be a feature of keyboard concertising until the early 20th-century. Amongst those who practised such improvisation were Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Anton Rubinstein, Paderewski, Percy Grainger and Pachmann. Improvisation in the area of 'art music' seems to have declined with the growth of recording.[20]


After studying over 1,200 early Verdi recordings, Will Crutchfield concludes that "The solo cavatina was the most obvious and enduring locus of soloistic discretion in nineteenth-century opera".[21] He goes on to identify seven main types of vocal improvisation used by opera singers in this repertory:[22]

  • 1. The Verdian "full-stop" cadenza
  • 2. Arias without "full-stop": ballate, canzoni, and romanze
  • 3. Ornamentation of internal cadences
  • 4. Melodic variants (interpolated high notes, acciaccature, rising two-note "slide")
  • 5. Strophic variation and the problem of the cabaletta
  • 6. Facilitations (puntature, simplification of fioratura, etc.)
  • 7. Recitative
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