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Improvising Attitudes

Originally Published: American Music Teacher

I always enjoyed improvising on the piano as I was growing up in a small town near a farming community in western New York State.

However, when I took piano lessons, this creativity was discouraged. According to my teachers, there was only one right way to play the piano: from the written notes. “Good” music meant only notated music. Since community singing was popular at this time, I used my ability to play “by ear” to accompany traditional American songs sung at social occasions, as well as the songs of the big bands that my father so enjoyed. Throughout my musical studies and professional career, I have constantly heard music teachers express negative attitudes towards improvisation and improvised music, such as jazz.

Why Improvise?

The word improvise is defined as “to invent, compose or recite without preparation… to make or do something using whatever you have or without arranging it or planning it in advance.”1 One could say to improvise means to “make it up as you go along.” We improvise when we speak. For several years after we’re born, we speak before being able to read. Why not teach students to “speak” music through musical improvisation, including playing songs “by ear,” before learning to read notes? Authors William Anderson and Joy E. Lawrence state:

Children should be able to physically feel and respond to musical stimuli before being asked to identify such stimuli on a cognitive level. Such an approach to musical study clearly parallels the pedagogical principle of sound before sight.2

Angela Diller in her method book summarizes the value of improvisation when she states:

As soon as you learn something new, experiment on the piano with it and play in all keys… most people feel that a free use of the keyboard is a prerogative of a gifted few people who play ‘”be ear” naturally… experience shows anyone who is intelligent, has a fair ear and is taught an order of procedures can acquire this skill… it is valuable because it stimulates students to investigate music and use the keyboard for him or herself.3

Performance Benefits

  • A student learns the basic mechanics of play a musical keyboard, as well as understanding essential musical elements such as the geography of the keyboard and pitch patterns.

  • A student feels and hears the music he or she is creating instead of just playing the keys as letter names as if typing on a computer keyboard.

  • A student is able to express herself or himself successfully within given parameters, a motivation for practicing and exploring musical sound, which is the desired goals of music instruction.

  • A student develops musical skills that can be applied with computer and software technology to create and record original music using many different musical voices.

Notation Benefits

Beginners have problems translating musical symbols, a cognitive skill, into finger movement, a psychomotor skill. Improvisation provides a natural sequence of teaching from sound and movement into sight with sound and movement.

  • A beginning visual problem is that when we read words we go from left to right; when we read we move up to the right and still to the right for down or left on the keyboard.

  • Letter names do not give a sense of direction or distance; observe how quickly a student plays the beginning songs when the finger numbers are written under the notes. It is important for a beginner to understand that pitch motion, the interval and direction of pitch, is the principle for reading, as well as transposing music and playing in different clefs.

  • Many numeric systems used in music, such as the opposite finger numbers for the right and left hands, fractions for types of notes or number of beats, interval numbers and scale degrees and so on, can be very confusing when learning to read music.

Improvising before reading music provides a natural way of making music and contributes to a more joyous experience reading notation. Students will both hear and understand the music better. Its importance to music instruction is evidenced by its inclusion in the National Music Standards. Improvising melodies, variations and accompaniments in Content Standard Number 3 approved for the Arts in America’s Schools 2000 by the United States Congress.4

European Music

Improvisation has played an important role in the history of European music. In earlier centuries, melodic improvisation was a part of certain types of Gregorian chant, and in the 16th-century ornaments and displays of virtuoso vocal techniques. In that century, the ability to improvise a fugue was required for an appointment as organist. A new practice occurred in the “harmonic improvisation” of the “thorough bass” in the 17th century. In the 18th century, cadenzas of the classical piano concerto were improvised, reflecting the improvisations by vocal virtuosos in the preceding centuries. The composers, Bach, Handel and Beethoven were just as “famous for their written compositions as for their improvisations.”5 Johannes Nikolaus Forkel in his biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, published in 1801, states that “in playing his own compositions, Bach would ordinarily establish a lively tempo and then play them each time with such interesting variations the music would speak to the listener as the living word.”6 Liszt and Franck among others in the 19th century included improvisations as part of their concert programs.

Improvisation in the later 19th century lost its importance in European music: “With the increased stature of the composer, greater precision of notation, greater emphasis on the perfected finished masterwork and increased specialization of composer and performer, improvisation was gradually relegated to academic exercise.”7

Method Books

The lute was important in the French musical tradition of the 16th and 17th centuries, but by the 18th century the harpsichord became the favored instrument. Keyboard method books of this century included improvisation and composition. Although Francois Couperin devoted his method book 1716 to problems of interpretation on the harpsichord, he includes preliminary exercises before reading notation. He states in his book that notation is a “science of numbers”8 and that:

Short preliminary exercises (are needed) to develop the hands… children should be presented with tablature only after they actually have a certain number of pieces in their fingers… the musical memory will ordinarily develop better if the student learns material be heart.”9

Examples of these preliminary exercises included ornamentation, single voice progression by sequences of three tones and broken chords. Another French musician Jean Philippe Rameau states in his method book of 1724 that “to develop musically… first and foremost is the importance of an active improvisation and a feel for harmony.”10

German keyboard methods of this century included chapters on counterpoint, harmony, figured bass, free improvisation, accompaniment, the art of ornamentation, cadences and improvisation of fermatas. One of the most significant books was published in 1753 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach. He states in the forward to his book that “musicians must be able to improvise fantasies in every style with rules of harmony and melody, play in all keys, transpose instantly, sight read, master thorough bass, reinforce overall harmony.”11 In the chapter on improvisation he discusses the free fantasia, an unmeasured improvised piece using varied harmonic progressions “expressed in all manner of figuration and motives.”12 In addition, he also gives suggestions for developing bass parts and the use of keys and chords.

The teaching of improvisatory skills disappeared with the primacy of the pianoforte in the 19th century, a new keyboard instrument that could be played both soft and loud that was developed for the greater volume needed in large concert halls. Legato playing and interpretation of music were emphasized in the teaching of this instrument. The most widely used method book was Muzio Clementi’s Introduction to The Art of Playing on the Pianoforte,13) popular both in Europe and in the United States. By this time, the concept of piano method developed into the piano school, separate from theory as in the past century.

Musical performances developed great popularity in the United States, as well as in Europe during the 19th century; one concert in Boston had 1,000 players with 75 timpani. It was a time for the rise of the piano virtuoso with the development of advanced piano techniques and repertoire. Even the piano industry changed in America as the opening of the West, with railroad transport, encourage an increase in the sale of pianos and number of manufacturers. The piano had long been an icon of high culture, but as prices fell, it came within the means of even modest homes, especially as purchase on credit came to be more common. Many different method books were published. One popular book was the New Method for Pianoforte by Nathan Richardson, published by Oliver Ditson of Boston in 1859, a leader in the music publishing business, having more than 100,000 titles in its catalogue.14 This book has been described as having an “Abundant use of… tuneful, recreative music that gives the pupil a happy relief from the purely technical work.”15

American and European method books of the 19th and early-20th centuries emphasized interpretation of music notation and improvisation was no longer included; it was disappearing even at the end of concerts.


Improvisation also disappeared from the singing of religious hymns in America, but unlike piano study, not without great controversy as noted in America’s Music by Gilbert Chase.16 In the 17th century, the singing of Psalms, and later hymns and spiritual songs were important to the Puritans and Pilgrims of the New England colonies. In the 18th century, conflicts occurred between reformers who tried to impose “regular singing” or singing by note and the common folk who preferred their own way of singing, a rural folk tradition, handed down by oral tradition. In this tradition, a limited number of tunes were used; people sang them by ear and differently in each congregation. Everyone sang in a way that best pleased him or herself, raising or lowering notes at will, or adding turns and flourishes. Lining out, a prominent feature of Psalm singing in England and Scotland, became widespread in New England. In this style, the leader gives out one line at a time, chanting it on the tonic or dominant, then it was sung by the congregation with much elaboration of the melody.

The people who were against this way of singing, the reformers, were mostly clergymen educated at Harvard. They described this common singing style as abominable and not in good taste. This movement for regular singing, developed by books written by these clergy, as well as public criticism, led to the rise of singing schools and promotion of regular music instruction; choral groups flourished in New England. Finally, in 1821, Lowell Mason published the very successful and widely used Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music,17 which brought systematic musical education into the public schools with the “regular singing” style.

African Music

A completely different perspective on the role of improvisation can be seen in the music practices in Africa and by African-Americans throughout history. In The Music of Black Americans: A History by Eileen Southern,18 the role of improvisation in music, dance and poetry is examined in West African countries, from where most slaves were taken and brought to America beginning in the 17th century. Music, dance and poetry were very important, and improvisation always played an important role. The “griots” or minstrels, hired by kings, were held in high esteem by the society and improvised both text and song in honor of their patrons and visitors or for any special occasion. Other types of improvisation included embellished figures of melodies that were either improvised on the spot or belonged to traditional repertory, and relatively short musical units repeated again and again with variation; some harmony might be added. Alternating solo and ensemble commonly known as call-and-response was utilized, allowing for interjection of speech. In addition, subsidiary sounds were commonly added to songs, such as buzzing, percussive effects, stick beating and vocal sounds like falsetto, shouts, groans and guttural tones.

In the music of the West African slaves in 18th- and 19th-century America, African performance practices with an emphasis on improvisation were continued in their vocal and instrumental music. Written records attest to such practices.

  • A lead singer began a song and others joined on refrains or call-and-response and then most often improvised new words for every verse.

  • The singers of the response followed their own whims, such as beginning when they pleased and adding harmony. They filled-in or improvised pauses of melody with claps, stomps, pats, vocal outbursts, dance, or in strumming or slapping string instruments. A variety of timbre from speech-like sounds to screaming and yelling were used within a single song.

  • Variations upon a theme or altered versions of another song were the most common type of improvisation. Changes were introduced into songs with each new performance.Melody was the vehicle for text and constantly adjusted to fit as the singer improvised succeeding verses.

The music of these slaves with an emphasis on improvisation was not respected. A white observer in colonial times said of African-American poetry, music and dance: “The poetry was like the music, rude and uncultivated… the dancing was so irregular and grotesque… must have been African music, no other kind appropriate for slave dancing.”19

The early 19th century religious camp meeting hymns called “spiritual songs” included added refrains and choruses from official church hymns, selected choruses added freely to any hymn and new religious songs using repetitive phrases in the call-and-response African tradition with catchy popular tunes. In addition, spontaneous songs were composed on the spot and were often begun by a preacher and developed by the crowds with praise words or phrases, such as “Hallelujah.”

In an attitude of condescension towards these African-American musical practices, the church father John Watson observed the errors in the Methodist church and wrote that “Blacks… sing for hours together, short scraps of disjointed affirmations… lengthened with long repetitive choruses… sung in the merry chorus-manner of southern harvest field… condemned such practices… affected religious manners of some whites… sing the whole night, scarce one tune were in the hymn books.”20 The African Methodist Episcopal church itself passed a resolution at its annual conference directing pastors to “strenuously oppose” the singing of specially composed hymns in public meetings, such as in the added original choruses and refrains used in Philadelphia with Richard Allen’s hymnal of 1801. It was stated that hymnals should be used more so people could follow the music.

In addition, throughout the 19th century an attitude of condescension towards American culture existed in general as cultivated Americans, “like the Colonial gentry, obsessed with good taste, elegance, and gentility, sought to imitate or import the products of European culture.”21 For example, composed songs that imitated slave songs and texts were called “Ethiopian music.” Such music was criticized as “the lowest dregs of music… [we] need respectable voices… and more refined music, such as the sentimental ballads and elegant salon pieces preferred in polite circles.”22

Improvisation was always employed in the new song style called gospel, which developed after the Civil War in black Pentecostal or folk churches. A piano or pump organ was a full partner in music making to keep rhythm and fill in pauses in singing with broken chords, arpeggios, runs and glissandos. Improvisation took place in three levels—melody (singer), harmony (piano or pump organ) and text with freely added words to original texts and the congregation adding words in call-and-response style.

Collective improvisation in this music occurred when a deacon lined out or raised the hymn by setting the pitch and reminding them of the words in half-sung or half-chanting style. Such singing was distinctive for its surging, melismatic melody, punctuated after each phrase by the leader into the next line. The texture was heterophonic; phrases were attached and released in an imprecise way. Singers would drop out of a phrase and surge back in; some might prolong the final tones. Underlying the whole was a steady relentless pulse, emphasized by foot-patting of singers.

A unique African-American improvised art form of poetry and music called “the blues” was developed around the turn of the 20th century. It was more than just music and poetry about feeling “blue,” “low” or “troubled” coming from the African-American culture, as commonly assumed. The philosophy of the blues was universal—by confronting your situation, sharing your troubles with others and being self-reliant in dealing with your problems, you learned how to live; you became a hero, so to speak.

The African styles of improvising and creating music continued from the early slave and religious songs into the blues. The musical form AAB in the blues paralleled the poetic form for a three-line text, each line composed of four bars and the entire song of 12 bars. The melody for each line was typically condensed into a little more than two measures of the four-measure phrase, allowing for a pause or “break” at the end of each vocal line of three measures, during which the accompanying instrument(s) improvised, or “filled in the breaks.” A call-and-response style occurred between voice and instrument(s). Spoken asides, such as “Oh, Lordy,” singer scoops, swoops or slurs using altered scale degrees 3, 5 and 7, and occasionally 6, called blues or bent tones were used. A singer freely used vocal devices such as falsetto, shouting, whining, moaning, speaking or growling, which gave vent to pain or happiness.

Jazz derived its most distinctive features directly from the blues. Players replaced the blues vocally oriented music with their instruments, recreating singing style and blue notes by using vocal devices just described. The emphasis was on the individual performer as composer, shaping music into his or her own style and form. A melody or the traditional harmonic framework of that melody served as takeoff point for improvisation. Like the blues tunes, the core of musical material used by jazz players was generally short, its length derived from repetition of basic material.

As in the earlier slave singing, there was an expressive approach to the making of music in jazz through improvising, rather than a so-called “correct” intellectual approach playing only notated music. Because jazz musicians worked in the red-light district of New Orleans, called “Storyville,” there were many public outcries against jazz, saying it was immoral. W.C. Handy, called “The Father of the Blues,” was hesitant and fearful about taking up with what he considered “low forms”23 of African-American folk music because such music was not considered respectable as it did not come from books, which were the symbol and source of education.

The importance of improvisational keyboard skills of 17th- and 18th-century Europe gave way to technique and interpretation in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, it was central to some groups of American colonists in their religious hymns, as well as African-Americans in their folk and spiritual songs and development of jazz and gospel music. In addition to being one of the National Music Standards, the importance of music improvisation today can be seen on the Internet with thousands of entries on the subject. Jazz improvisation is also recognized with the many college courses and workshops offered in this subject, as well as in the popularity of jazz performers throughout the world.

Enjoy making music without notation. Let your students experience the joy of improvising on the musical keyboard from the very first lesson.


1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 909

2. Anderson, 8

3. Diller, 1

4. Music Educators National Conference, National Standards for Arts Education. (Reston, VA: MENC, 1994) 5. Appel, 352

6. Letnanova, 92

7. Randall, 407

8. Letnanova, 9

9. Ibid., 10

10. Ibid., 7

11. Ibid., 39

12. C.P.E. Bach, 430

13. Muzio Clementi, Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Pianoforte

(New York: DaCapo Press, 1974)

14. Fisher, 58

15. Ibid.

16. Gilbert Chase, America’s Music (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1966)

17. Chase, 154

18. Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997 Third Edition).

19. Ibid., 48

20. Ibid., 85

21. Chase, 325

22. Southern, 93

23. Chase, 457

Originally Published: American Music Teacher, December/January 2007/2008, Page 18

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