A thread about improvisation

Yeah he’s pretty fundamentally opposed to the idea of improvisation. In that his whole thing was about using random processes to step outside of yourself, and saw improvisation as the perfect example of the opposite of this, just people regurgitating licks, absolutely limited by their experience as performers.

I can see where he’s coming from, but it’s definitely a misinformed position to take, or rather, a really good example of a composer’s opinion about improvisation.

I have definitely played things beyond myself in improvisation (not specifically physically, but including that too), and I don’t believe that to be unusual among improvisers.


Some interesting points above. While I very much appreciate the “virtuoso” improvisation of say, Miles Davis, I certainly subscribe to the view that it is not the only type that has meaning, for an individual performing or the audience listening.

To give some personal frames of reference (in no particular order):


king crimson

improvised music from japan




Just ‘meaningful’. Standard dictionary meaning will suffice.


(twenty characters)

slippery slope @carvingcode

i can’t force you to qualify your statement . and doubt that this is your intention but your assesment is beginning to come across, tonally, like the folks who label whole genres or methods of play as mere diversion (having no value)

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I hadn’t heard of him - just watched/listened to a few things. I really like this:

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Sure. But I read the OP’s post as desiring some sort of starting place for his beginning to understand and apply improvisation into his music.

That’s why I suggested listening to a lot of Miles Davis. Not because jazz is the only genre where musical improv is present. His genius at improv is evident in many of his slower ballads and can be some of the most approachable to the novice listener.

Certainly, many approaches to learning improv begin with the ‘just do it’ phase - taking a scale and riffing on the scale, then chord progressions, etc. More often than not, they also include analysis and study beyond the purpose of improv.

I do understand (and lament) the somewhat overwhelming influence that the availability of various boxes that one simply plugs in and starts pressing buttons to ‘make music’ has had on the scene. Many here may only have experience with music making boxes. Your experience is limited because of it. Seriously, every musical instrument ever created is still available to be learned and played. Yet so many limit themselves to only the instruments they feel are ‘not old’.

While on the one hand these boxes have allowed more people to feel like they are making music, I still am on the outside of the thinking that it’s advanced music in any ‘meaningful’ way. Example: Give any small child a brightly colored toy piano or xylophone and they will bang away at it. Is that improv? Did anything ‘meaningful’ get produced that will be remembered and appreciated? Maybe, but probably in the same rare chance that an adult with no experience, background, or understanding of musical frameworks can with one of the magical music boxes available.

Sorry to the OP for the divergence.


Yeah; I figured on an answer like that. There’s ‘meaning’ in any music if either someone in the audience OR the people playing it find it. Other than that, it’s 100% arbitrary. The idea that improv is some dark art only capable of being conjured by a small group of elite masters is specious. It’s fun to “just play”, or shout out a key and go wild, or sometimes to just make some good bone-rattling loud noises.

Jazzbo snobbery is a tiny corner of improv. It’s an interesting corner, with a rich tradition, and, hell, I like Keith Jarrett. I just don’t see any need to try and play like him; he does an awesome job without my help.


Anti-tradition, insult-wrapped-in-nickname, and the ‘anything goes’ chestnut (holiday reference intended). Typical. Who’s the snob?

now now gents

we are passionate about our perspective in music, and rightly so…been barbs thrown both ways but let’s try to avoid lashing out again

a difference of opinion doesn’t have to lead to this


Probably the guy saying the thing the other guy doesn’t like. Calm down, duder. It’s just tunes.

btw i appreciate the detailed response and will prod you about certain points you’ve made once i mull it over


You obviously both have quite different views on this topic, as I’m sure everyone who has contributed to this thread so far does. That’s one of the reasons I started the thread because I am genuinely interested in the thoughts of fellow lines members.

I do feel however that you are both getting into a personal “you’re wrong, I’m right” type scenario which, in my experience, nobody gains anything from.


Sorry about that. I’m not arguing for a single opinion here. Just got sidetracked by the troll.

Not especially, but I was a bit vague! I use improvisation in my personal music quite a lot. I’m not a composer. I haven’t improvised much with others though.

I play bass guitar and modular synths.

I’m not 100% sure which boxes you are talking about here but I do think the democratisation of music technology over the last 20-30 years has been a great thing and has allowed many people who would not have otherwise had the opportunity to improvise music/sounds/noises they enjoy the chance to do so. And, for me that’s the key. If I enjoy the music I end up with that’s enough :slight_smile:


When I was still in my early 20s, there was a group of dancers in the modern dance program at Washington University that I fell in with. I was playing percussion during the contact improv (an improvisational dance form, I’ll dig up a video in a bit) sessions this crowd had begun to organize in their free time. We were hanging out on the outdoor patio of a bar, having some beers.

The conversation was about one of their choreography classes and it was spinning the drain of the topic of lack of inspiration for class, and the overly critical nature of their instructor. Although a couple of folks in the group were very old friends of mine, most had only recently met me or were meeting me for the first time at the bar. I was getting bored with the conversation. I was attracted to this group for their creative vivacity, and I was insanely jealous that they had the means to produce an arts education while I was already well into the working world after dropping out of college myself. I couldn’t bear to hear how unenjoyable the experience was for them, especially given the beauty and grace I’d seen these same people pull out of thin air while improvising. But the topic was a choreography class, very much in the mold of longtime Cage collaborator Merce Cunningham.

After a while, I just couldn’t take this conversation any longer. I was sitting on the ground, next to a rain drain, and a bit of garbage had collected near the spot where I was sitting. There was a metal Band-Aid box, and a bit of gravel. I improvised a shaker with this humble material and started shaking out a syncopated rhythm. My buddy Todd was a bit of a drummer himself, and he added the “clave” part with a stick and an empty beer bottle. Within moments the whole group was clapping and singing and we had ourselves a little on-the-spot drum circle in spite of the fact that none of us had a drum to speak of at the moment.

The mood of the group went from morose to elated. Maybe we had just finally drank enough beer to lighten up. Or maybe it was the rhythm I shook out on a Band-Aid box. I used the opportunity to introduce myself to a few of the people in the group that hadn’t met me yet. Then I took a risk and said “this is what you need more of in your compositions, you need to open yourself up to chance.”

It took a few more years for me to get familiar enough with Cage and his influence on this school’s dance program to comprehend that I was giving contrary advice. That my “random” was quite different from a composer’s “random”, and especially different from the composer’s random. He was looking for some cosmic order in the randomness, a divine chance that really left nothing to chance. I was looking for the rhythm that was already innate in all of us. I was tapping into the biological metronome of our central pattern generators.

I don’t know if my little speech helped folks with their choreography class. Some folks seemed to think it would. I was young and selfish and it was more important to me that day that I had saved our evening of beer drinking from descending into a depressing bout of grousing never to return.

There was nothing about that moment that could have been practiced or rehearsed. Nobody ever taught me how to shake a Band-Aid box.

This is one of the first times on the lines forum I’ve ever seen anybody try to make it personal in a demeaning way. Please try not to do that.

How to react to somebody else in an improvised situation:


Oh, I’d agree with that. What I’ll say, and then shut up about, is that the idea that somehow “having experience with only music making boxes” or somehow not playing a ‘traditional’ instrument is somehow limiting is absolutely hilarious and insulting at the same time. Making music is one of the few corners remaining in the human experience where we can actually be free of rules, if we choose to be. I play in a given scale and key all the time because it sounds pleasing to me to do so; but if someone decides, ala David Fair that you can ‘master the guitar in a day’ by throwing out any notion of tuning, or chords, or scales, then that’s just fine.

Really, what I object to isn’t the idea that discipline can create great music, because it can. But it can also create incredibly boring music. The idea that there’s a formula and study that will make for ‘meaningful’ improv is antithetical to the notion of improv. The idea that improv have meaning beyond ‘let’s make some sounds’ is a kind of stricture that makes no sense.

I’m not against trying to make improv ‘go somewhere’; but only if that’s what you want out of improv. Leave some of the rules at the door, however, and you’re giving it more of a chance to go somewhere interesting. Whether or not that has ‘meaning’ shouldn’t matter one whit.

(Oops, quoted the wrong Fair. Fixed.)


[quote=“Toaster, post:38, topic:5835”]
Making music is one of the few corners remaining in the human experience where we can actually be free of rules, if we choose to be.
[/quote]This is powerful…why i love music in general and improvisation in particular


Improv is such a valuable skill in life, not just in music. There’s something interesting about the prevalence of comedy in improvisational circles…

Here are some great books on the subject, several of which I learned about right here on the lines forum.