Principles of Improvisation


by Naji Hakim

In : Church Music Quarterly, magazine of the Royal School of Church Music, July 2001. 

Artistic activity consists of both intuition and calculation.The artist should aim for a certain balance between the two; for a reflection nourished by experience and instinct, the fruit of grace, 'When reason is silent instinct will answer you' (Lamartine). Improvisation offers ground for such a balance.

Instrumental mastery is a prerequisite for the improviser, on the levels of virtuosity, of knowledge of the expressive possibilities of the instrument, and of live performance. lt involves an awareness of primary melody (Hauptstimme) and secondary melodic lines(Nebenstimmen), rhythmic development and elements of harmonic tension and relaxation.

All the world's civilisations and cultures have known improvisation, whether as the sole form of musical expression (e.g. in various Eastern traditions) or, as in the case of Western music, as the primary basis or preparation for a written work. Moreover, the history of music provides us with many examples of composers, from Bach to Stravinsky, who were noted for their improvisational mastery. It is worth looking for the characteristics of notated music in improvisation and, conversely, making use of improvisational spontaneity while composing. To quote La Bruyere, 'A good author who writes with care often feels that the expression long sought in vain, when finally found, was the simplest, the most natural, and the one which should have presented itself effortlessly at the outset'. Improvisation, like composition, should respect three essentiel criteria :

1. Balance between unity and diversity, 
2. Control of dramatic interest, 
3. Balanced proportions.

Unity results from thematic recurrence and cohesion of language, whereas diversity is obtained by means of contrasts in the following areas : theme, tonality, form, timbre (touch), texture, textural density, character, measure, rhythm and tempo.

Renewal of musical rhetoric comes about by means of : 
- a change of the focus of interest: for example, when beginning a passage of decreased harmonic contrast, melody or other elements should come to the fore. 
- simultaneous development of different parameters, such as melody and harmony. 
- gradation of interest (rhythmic, contrapuntal, etc.).

The improviser should learn how to manage the proportions of his music and should above all avoid the frequent pitfall of excessive length. Having finished saying something the improviser should go straight to the next point or, to quote Aristotle, should 'know how to stop'.

When playing a written piece, the musician should take into account the spontaneous nature of the creative act. Reciprocally, improvisation should, to a certain extent, create the illusion of being a written composition. Thus the improviser (whether performing on a monodic or polyphonic instrument) will pay attention to developing proficiency in the various compositional skills: harmony, for the 'internal ear'; counterpoint, for the ability to shape melodic lines; fugue, for a sense of construction; instrumentation, for the awareness oftimbres and their balance when combined; and finally analysis, so as to draw inspiration from the masterpieces of musical history by means of careful listening and reading.

In order to be able to apply the qualities of a written work to improvisation, temporal constraints must be taken into consideration. Once the improvisation starts, hesitation is not allowed and the piece must evolve until it reaches its final cadence, hence a particular kind of mental agility is called for which is acquired progressively through concentration, the ordering of various elements and the ability to control time.

One should first practise by concentrating on a single parameter at a time, such as melody, ignoring or even neglecting other aspects. A pianist does not start by learning how to play with both hands at once; similarly, a dancer does not begin by learning to dance with hands and feet simultaneously. Developments should be built on a single motif, then on one theme, rather than on several motifs or themes at a time.

After having worked on various parameters taken separately, the next stage (here termed 'ordering') consists of establishing a hierarchy of elements to be controlled during the improvisation. When melody takes pride of place, it dictates the accompaniment; if, however, harmony has precedence over melody, the former will inspire the substance of the latter. In a canon, it is always the dux that imposes the melody of the comes, and usually the harmonic direction of the superimposition.

It is easy to improvise badly : one only has to play faster than the speed of thought. Consequently, the thinking tempo must exceed that of the playing. The observation of a cat standing stock-still to watch its prey or a karate expert meditating his gesture before executing it are excellent examples. In the two cases, the attack will only be carried out once calculations have been made with regard to distance, effort and breathing. In order to make similar calculations the improviser needs moments of preparation time during the music itself.These moments can be extremely short, similar to the relationship between transitory and permanent ratings in electricity or in acoustics.

Control of time thus consists of respect for a hierarchy between the tempi of reflection and performance.This applies both to the musical discourse itself and to structural articulation, i.e. when passing from one section to the next.

Whatever the musical language employed, four main ways of improvising can be distinguished, limiting consideration to harmonic and rhetorical criteria:

1. uncontrolled rhetoric (and ipso facto proportions) and harmony, 
2. uncontrolled rhetoric, controlled harmony, 
3. controlled rhetoric, uncontrolled harmony, 
4. controlled rhetoric and harmony.

Student improvisers should aim to reach the fourth category (controlled rhetoric and harmony) even if initially they are placed somewhere among the first three. Unconditional submission to the qualities mentioned above - concentration, ordering and temporal control - will help.

Musical discourse is generally framed by some kind of metrical organisation (regular or irregular barring, for example). Both in the performance of a written piece as well as during an improvisation, it is the pulse that creates the metrical organisation, harnessing the breathing of the musician and of the music. The feeling of pulsation, without which music cannot exist, should therefore be omnipresent.

Making mistakes is normal in improvisation, even once harmonic reflexes have been acquired. However, it is necessary to be aware of a mistake and to make the best possible use of it by justifying it afterwards - by resolving a 'foreign note' or by merging it to a chord; by continuing with 'parallel octaves' for a more extended passage; by substituting a 'distorted rhythm' for what has gone before, etc. In the words of Georges Duhamel, as far as art is concerned 'you must learn how to lie'.

The memory of the improviser (or of the listener) facilitates the appreciation of musical structure, with regard to character, dynamics, texture, instrumentation, and on a tonal/thematic level.

For example, in the following alternations :
Character: calm - lively - calm, 
Dynamics: piano - forte - piano
Texture : harmonic - contrapuntal - harmonic, 
Orchestration: tutti - solo - tutti
Keys : A - E flat - A, 
memory helps one to perceive an ABA form.

Additionally, in forms including recapitulations, the 're-cognition' of a melodic, harmonic or rhythmic idea reinforces structural contours. In this case, the idea attains the status of a real theme by means of recurrence, recapitulation or development.

Practically speaking, a reflex action must come into play as soon as the improvisation starts - memorization of the theme, naturally, but above all the memorization during the course of the work of motifs, periods, harmonizations, keys,... Starting out from this memorized data, the continuation of the music will gradually come into being. A motif will inspire its own transformation, an antecedent period will naturally prepare the way for its consequent, the harmonisation of a theme will be brought back or altered, there will be a return to a home key. Furthermore, training in the art of improvisation should develop this reflex by means of playing immediately from memory after listening to or reading short melodic or harmonic examples.

Relationships between dux and comes in imitative textures (imitation, canon, fugue) include intervallic or rhythmical alterations for tonal or other reasons. The same is true for melodic or harmonic sequences. In improvisation, as in composition, these alterations are tolerated and even welcomed as long as certain features of the idea remain recognizable, such as the melodic contour, rhythm or harmony.

An improvisation on a theme is generally built from its melodic, rhythmic, harmonic and expressive components. It should be thought out in response to the theme rather than being limited exclusively to a succession of pre-established formulae, even if the latter have some pedagogical value. The most common pitfall consists of applying the same bag of all-purpose tricks irrespective of thematic material. In actual fact it is the evolution of the theme - its exposition, development, recapitulation etc. - that will generate the form of the work.

Having taken stock of the theme (i.e. after singing it in one's head) the musician's task is to analyze it for the purpose of deriving material to be developed; to appraise its character, structure, melodic profile and rhythmic features, as well as to work out its harmonic colouration.

This analysis, together with such other preliminaries as the choice of form or tonal directions, may be carried out during preparation time or during the improvisation itself. Nevertheless, there are imponderables, and choices made during this preparation will either be confirmed during the performance or else abandoned in favour of other ideas which command the player's attention.

The theme, to be completed if necessary, should be presented with its given characteristics in respect of nuance, tempo and articulation so as to remain recognizable.

Completing the theme means giving it a shape. Starting with a given theme A, and by virtue of the principle of balance between unity and diversity, two main scenarios can be distinguished: ABA or AA'. Other structures (ABA', AA'B, AA'BA, ABC, etc.) can easily be derived from these first two. Points of harmonic articulation (cadences) will help to shape the melodic work.

The main fonction of harmonisation is to bring out the given theme. The style of harmonisation should generally be conceived on the basis of the analysis of the theme, arising from the harmonic idiom, harmonic density, harmonic frequency and harmonic rhythm.

The development (or extended commentary) is the section that follows the exposition. Its essentiel function is to exploit and work out (durchfuhren) the thematic material of the exposition by looking for contraste, tension and fantasy. The development is articulated by its melodic, harmonic, contrapuntal or instrumental components.

One of the most important artistic priorities is the consideration of the 'material'. To carry out a development, it is necessary to proceed successively as follows :

- examine the element to be developed, 
- memorize it, 
- work it out at the instrument.

The form results from the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and instrumental evolution of the thematic material.'The idea generates the form, writes Paul Dukas, 'the contrary is inconceivable'.

The main possible sections of a form are: the introduction, the exposition, the development, the digression, the recapitulation (which may be varied), the transition and the coda. Before approaching the form as a whole, it is advisable to practise each of the different sections taken separately.

Being a particular form of human expression, Art should reflect emotional sensibility through the prism of the work. To attain to the poetic grace of the artistic gesture in improvisation, it is not enough to apply harmonic progressions, contrapuntal rules, formal diagrams, combinations of timbres or tricks of the trade. All technical aspects must rather be made subject to authentic compositional reflection in real-time, organized according to the three steps already referred to, i.e. consideration of the material, its absorption and lastly its commentary. The improviser will then be able to project an artistic thought through the evolutions of a theme so as to bring about the magical transfiguration of a moment in time.


© 2003