On Improvisation In Music: Why And How To Improvise? How does improvisation affect you?
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What is improvisation in music? Why is improvisation important? How to improvise? How does improvisation benefit our process of creating and performing music, and is it just as simple as going with the flow?
What is improvisation?
Improvisation is in fact an extremely creative activity. This is a process in which we create music in the moment. This already tells you, improvisation is also quite a spontaneous activity. If you are a fan of blues, jazz, rock or contemporary classical music, then you definitely have a feel of how improvisation works. Improvisation in music usually occurs when we step out of the already predicted flow of a song we are playing, or when we make a mistake, if you will. Take improvisation as a superpower a musician has. But one that needs practice. I know it sounds like something easy, especially since we say it is spontaneous, but being good at improvising requires a lot of good practice, and a lot of listening to music.
How to improvise?
Well, this question might sound a bit silly to some of you. But really, improvising is something that you learn how to do the more you do it. And it all begins with the freedom to step out of music’s ultimate comfort zone: the rules, the sheets, the deal, the plan (intentionally or not). To clear one thing up, in this digital era where you can combine electronic and acoustic, you get a lot of experimental genres. These, at least to me, open a lot more doors in which you can improvise. Whether on stage or while working with your band in the studio or on a rehearsal. Whether you use actual instruments, or a computer or both. All of the things we have today simply expand the possibilities not to break but to simply overcome the rules and even genres in music. And that’s amazing. So, how to improvise?
As someone that got into instruments pretty early in life, and grew around listening to music and exploring instruments, I pretty much tried to wrap my brain around the sound of everything that got into my hands. Then I discovered music software, loopers, all kinds of things. At this point, I play in a band, and I never miss the chance on playing and creating alone as well. Let’s get to a few tips on this:
Don’t be afraid to break the rules or make a mistake
This is in fact very important. And as simple as that. Just, don’t be afraid to break the rules. There’s really no other way to explain this or deliver this to you. If you are a music maker/performer you know exactly what I mean. It is the same with making mistakes. They are actually paving your road to improvising in a way.
Listen to music
Listening to music teaches you a lot more than a new song, if you know how to properly put your ears into it. This is important because, simply put, the more you listen, the more you get used to sound. For me at least, the more I listened to music – the more I developed this instinct of recognizing certain spots in my favorite pieces where you could throw in a thing or two, another vocal, another element or instrument. Listening to music and especially being able to break down the composure of whatever you are listening to, gives you the ability to develop this second nature to the soundscape. I know this sounds a bit abstract, but it works.
Begin with simple things and don’t rush
You might as well take this one as: follow your own speed on this road. Don’t rush. Take your time. Pick your favorite piece of music and try to listen to it carefully. Add a layer of music spice from your own creativity. I think this is a nice way to start getting into it. Make sure you concentrate on the fact that improvising is spontaneous and (especially in the beginning), this makes it imperfect every here and there. So, let the moment take you. Don’t worry too much about more than just the melody that you humm in your head. Everything else will slowly grow onto you the more you practice.
So, as you can see, improvisation does indeed require practicing. You need your ears and brain both involved actively. Start with something familiar. This will make you feel more comfortable to break off and start adding your own jam.
Leave some space for improvising while you are rehearsing/creating
While rehearsing or creating, alone or with your band, every once in a while (or even more often), leave some space during the rehearsing/creating process to improvise. Whether this is on an already existing, wrapped up original piece, or a piece that is in the making. Even if it is not your original tune, jam over something. Playing in a band, I learned it is really cool to improvise. Especially during performances as a guitarist. But, even cooler if the whole band broke off the soundscape tracks the audience is waiting to listen, and delivered them a fresh -at the moment- jam to get them moving even more. If you play with other people, encourage one another to try improvising together. I don’t think you’ll regret this. Eventually, it pays off.
Record your stuff during improvising so you can hear them later. I found this one very helpful while learning.
Why is improvisation in music important?
How to put this more simply than telling you that improvisation really, really allows you to play music. You should take it as something that sets your wildest creativity free and out of your imagination. You should enjoy it. It is true that improvisation requires a huge dose of creativity, but to be honest with you, it gives right back at it. The more you do it – the better you become. Not only that it helps with your playing experience, but it helps with your listening experience as well. The more I learned about improvising and how to improvise, the better of perspective I got for music, to me, it changed the whole musical experience. You can feel it more during performing an already existing piece in front of your audience, than while actually composing.
If you search for some difference between them while composing, it will be hard for you to see it, unless you already have an existing idea in your head in which over you will improvise (this happens to me sometimes, but it still somehow feels like composing).
How does improvising affect us?
Fun fact: To break it down to a more “organic” level to you:
I’m involved with sound and music, but during the day, I am involved on the other side where there’s absolute silence and people who can’t register sound. I’ve studied these people, and I’ve studied the people who make music that we enjoy. To me it was always amazing how sound and music affects us as beings. It lead me once, to read up this research about improvising and the brain’s reaction to it.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University conducted this experiment on improvisation in music. It involved six jazz musicians, and a piano. They used an fMRI scanner to capture the neural activity in their brain during two situations: 1. When they were asked to play a piece of music by memory, and 2. When they improvised.
The results showed that there are certain activities in some areas in the brain, as well as inhibitions in other brain areas during these situations. Now this activating and deactivating in certain brain areas worked like a switch that turned on the left and turned off the right, and the other way around.
There is a part in our frontal cortex of the brain responsible for conscious monitoring of the activity we are performing. This part showed high neural activity during playing a piece by memory. When playing while improvising, again in the frontal cortex of the brain, an area responsible for describing memories and story telling shows high neural activity during improvising. When one of these areas is active, the other is inhibited.
A piece learned by memory and played on an instrument works as same as riding a bike. To an extent ends up relying on muscle memory. However, during improvising, we get more creative and active on a more abstract level. This not only helps in music, but helps us in general to grow as creative individuals. Arts have a special bridge that connects them, and you can often end up somewhere you never expected to be.
Improvising is important to you. Out of many reasons. I believe that as a musician/performer you can only gain from it if you work hard enough. At the end of everything, all in all, improvising is fun. It saves you from what can go wrong during playing a piece, but it can also offer an instant positive boost during your gig. I’ll just wrap this in the words of Miles Davis, one of the kings of the improvisation kingdom – jazz:
“If you hit the wrong note, it is the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”