Jazz Theory – Improvisation

28 December 2015 Articles Jazz Theory


Jazz improvisation is the process of spontaneously creating fresh melodies over the continuously repeating cycle of chord changes of a tune. The improviser may depend on the contours of the original tune, or solely on the possibilities of the chords’ harmonies. It has been said that the best improvised music sounds composed, and that the best composed music sounds improvised. Composed music and improvised music may seem to be opposites, but in Jazz they merge in a unique mixture. The trick to Jazz improvisation is playing music with both spontaneous creativity & intentional conviction.

“You’ve got to find some way of saying it without saying it.” – Duke Ellington

A common misconception about Jazz improvisation is that it’s invented out of the air. This notion may exist because many small Jazz groups do not read music when they perform. Jazz players will choose phrases that seem to be preordained so you intuitively know where they are going, even though it’s being created at the instant you are hearing it. The musicians are actually spontaneously creating a very intricate form of theme and variation; they all know the tune and the role of their instrument. The guitar, piano, bass and drums, while all able to solo, basically provide the rhythm and harmony over which the soloist will create improvised variations. The structure is flexible so that the soloist may venture in various directions depending on the inspiration of the moment. A Jazz musician is creating spontaneous art every time he or she plays music. In fact, spontaneity has always characterised Jazz music’s finest improvisers.

“In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammer and vocabulary. There’s no right or wrong, just some choices that are better than others.” – Wynton Marsalis

Simply put, improvisation means doing, saying, playing, or singing something extemporaneously, that is, not planned ahead of time.

Learning to Improvise

Jazz musicians learn how to improvise in a way that is similar to how kids learn how to talk.

  1. Young jazz musicians learning how to improvise listen to other jazz musicians improvise and try to imitate them; kids (even babies) learn how to talk by listening to others talk and trying to imitate them.
  2. Jazz musicians play their instruments a lot; kids learning how to talk, talk a lot.
  3. To play better, jazz musicians study instrumental technique (the physical mechanics of playing an instrument) and music theory (how notes and chords fit together); to speak better, kids study pronunciation and grammar.

A Passion for Jazz
Jazz in America


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