What is improvisation?

Improvisation, which can be defined as the art of making up music “while playing or singing, extemporaneously creating a melody, rhythm, song or instrumental piece” (Bruscia, 1991, p. 5), which is regularly in music therapy practice. Music improvisation can involve many types of media, such as sounds generated on or by the body, voice, pitched or unpitched percussion instruments. Music improvisation is NOT just ‘playing random notes’ as some might suggest. It is a process which involves tremendous amount of thinking, careful listening and observation. Every musical connection you create with the person you are improvising is a unique experience.

If you didn’t know me at all and we had the opportunity to improvise some music together, you may find that you ‘know’ more about me afterwards. This is because music is a language itself and it can be used to communicate, perhaps not in our day to day verbal and precise terms, but in an abstract and emotional level.  Our personality may show in the way we play music. We might take turns to play, like how you would talk to someone. Our music conversation might be a fragmented one, or one that is very smooth. It could be very choatic, which could sound like a debate or an argument, or it could be very harmonised, just like how two best friends know each other very well. Music improvisation is a vital element in music therapy work as we often work with client who are non-verbal. Being able to connect with music, perhaps is one of the most effective way to express and communicate on a very fundamental level. This is just like how mothers and infants ‘talk’. You will realise mothers often imitate baby’s babbling all the time, reflecting the lyrical nature of baby’s speech as a way to connect with her child. Thist is very like a musical communication, without words.

In the context of music therapy practice, there is no right or wrong in terms of music improvisation. Therefore the clients who are involved in this piece of improvisation DO NOT NEED to have any prior musical skills or knowledge. It is the therapist, who NEEDS to be musically versatile in order to ACKNOWLEDGE, CONTAIN, digest and REFLECT the musical language created by the client(s). Some psychoanalytically orientated music therapist might suggest that the way that the music are created, contains some a certain level of subconscious material in ones’ psyche that is awaiting to be discovered.

You could refer to more about music improvisation techniques and case studies in Tony Wigram’s Improvisation, published by Jessica Kingsley Publisher.  It is a very informative book with guidance for music therapy practice.

Article written by Kit Yang Carol Cheung (Trainee Music Therapist @Anglia Ruskin University,UK)

Updated : 27.05.2012