What does improvising conjure up in the minds eye?
l guess for most of us it’s the jazz musicians best friend. The fantastic spectacle of a jazz musician improvising around an often well known tune is a typical vision of how to improvise. This is, of course, an incredibly skilled part of the musical art, and in all honesty can’t be effectively done without an understanding of a wide variety of scales, including modes, pentatonics (major and minor) and the blues scale. It also helps to immerse yourself in the genre and listening to lots of different artists. Interestingly, the blues scale is often used in music and tends to jump out when you know what it sounds like. And although it sounds free and wandering, jazz improvisation is based on a highly structured series of chord progressions; many of which were originally identified in the 1930’s and 1940’s to get around the copyright issues that faced jazz musicians when using existing pieces. The progressions though were taken from those very same tunes without the melody line!
Improvisation isn’t confined to Jazz though, many of the great composers through the centuries have been improvisers, Mozart, Bach and Liszt amongst them. This was something that was expected and normal for musicians at the time, and directly led them to many of their famous pieces. It has been said that composition is improvisation written down and there is a lot in that. When someone is improvising they are essentially composing as they go along and a composition, ie. something that can be replicated and replayed, emerges once a particular iteration of a piece is written down.
Although we tend to think of improvising as a difficult skill it doesn’t have to be. It can be done with something as basic as a C major scale. It doesn’t have to be in jazz style but whatever style you like, just play around with the notes and, although there will be lots of things that don’t work, there will be some that sound good. If you make a note of these then essentially you are a composer. Develop this with other scales and you may be surprised at what you come up with.