What does improvisation in music mean?

Improvisation can be described as the process of creating music or soundscapes on an instrument without preparation, right on the spot, as a reflection of a musician’s mood or a musician’s reaction to a given topic at the moment. One musician or the whole band can be involved in this magical process.

It may seem that musicians are free to play whatever they want when they improvise. However, achieving this level of “freedom” requires constant practice on your instrument and a deep understanding of musical context.

The phenomenon of improvisation appears in many musical genres. Read on to find out about the different types of improvisation.

Types of improvisation in music

Improvisation is a broad concept in music. In contemporary music there are generally two types of improvisation: improvisation on chord changes and free improvisation.

Improvisation on a chord changes

Improvisation on chord changes happens when a soloist, in a certain part of a song, spontaneously creates a new melody over a chord progression in a song. This type of improvisation is common in all types of jazz, all types of rock music, and some folk music. 

It’s worth mentioning that creating a melody on the spot requires musicians to deeply study the chord changes of a song. By doing so, they learn which notes — scales or modes — they can use over these chords. During improvisation, musicians follow the chord changes and use certain scales and chord tones to create their spontaneous musical lines.

By improvising over and over again on certain songs, musicians often find their favorite melodies, phrases or licks which they will use over similar chord progressions in different songs.

Modern music is filled with examples of this type of improvisation. We’ll give you two popular examples from music history.

Improvisation in ‘Stairway to Heaven’

The classic rock masterpiece “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin from the album “Led Zeppelin IV” (1971) offers a clear example of improvisation on chord changes. Listen to Jimmy Page’s guitar solo that starts at 05:55. Nowadays, many guitarists learn this solo by heart, but it probably started as an improvisation and during live performances Jimmy Page would add new phrases and licks to this original solo. 

Led Zeppelin

Improvisation in ‘Giant Steps’

The classic jazz masterpiece “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane from the eponymous album is one of the most difficult chord progressions in jazz and improvisation music. John Coltrane’s solo starts at 00:25. While every chorus consists of the same complicated chord progression, he brings new melodic lines and ideas over each repetition. It’s a classic example of improvisation and an endless source of inspiration for many musicians.

John Coltrane

Free improvisation

When a musician or the whole band creates new music without knowing the harmony or the melody in advance, we call it free improvisation. Contrary to improvisations on chord changes, in free improvisation musicians change the composition of a song as they go. This is an exciting journey for musicians and listeners. Free improvisation is also good for musicians that want to practice listening and reacting to each other, creating a musical conversation. 

Examples of free improvisation: 

Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” (1961).

Ornette Coleman

Shelly Mane’s piece “Abstract N1” from the album “The three and the Two” (1954).

Shelly Mane

How can I develop improvisation skills?

It’s very important to listen to a lot of improvisation masters. And it’s crucial to get to know your instrument better every day and to deepen your musical knowledge.

An important skill for improvisation is to be able to hear your musical ideas in your head before you actually play them. And then to connect your ideas with your instrument. In this way you’re exploring the instrument and training yourself to play what you hear.

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