Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes


In this article originally commissioned by Music Teacher magazine, Tony Haynes sets out his thoughts on the importance of improvisation, and some ideas for teaching it…


Jazz is the music most people associate with improvisation. It’s true that improvisation is the driving force in jazz, but improvisation is – and has always been – a significant element in most other musics worldwide (even – once – in European classical music).

Jazz in itself is notoriously hard to define. It’s not a genre, style or specific musical sound – in the way that, say, baroque music, gamelan or street samba can be easily identified. It’s better to think of jazz as an approach or attitude towards music-making which can deliver many different results, but always with two features in common: improvisation and the appropriation of elements of other musics.

Jazz is, uniquely, a music that constantly needs to reinvent itself – and it has done so prolifically and with increasing diversity over the last century or so. Change is of the essence, and although styles from previous eras may exist side by side, they lack the creative vigour that is essential to jazz; like a big band which uses arrangements from a past age, and where no one improvises, they do indeed become just another musical genre.

I make these points not to imply that one kind of music is superior to another, but because it’s important to appreciate differences if we are to make any headway in understanding improvisation.

For centuries, improvisation was vital to European classical music: in ensembles, inventing accompaniments from minimal notation; in the opera house, filling out harmony behind recitatives or freely ornamenting arias; and in the concert hall, with soloists extemporising cadenzas or concert pianists performing a virtuosic paraphrase on the latest operatic hit. In church, organists still improvise to help the service flow or to mark time before the arrival of the bride, but otherwise this tradition virtually disappeared around the time of the emergence of jazz as a new art form. Coincidence?

Outside Europe, Indian classical music, with its Hindustani tradition in the north and the Carnatic tradition in the south, is virtually entirely improvised – albeit obeying quite strict musical rules – and absolutely depends on the skill and imagination of the soloist and their accompanist(s). Any drumming tradition will require its exponents to improvise cross-rhythms, call-and-response patterns and so on; and in Latin, Caribbean or township music the harmony is filled out rhythmically by guitars, steel pans or whatever. Even music that is quite rigid in its form – Chinese court music, Javanese gamelan, Irish folk music – relies on its performers to interpret, embellish and ornament it.

Through all these examples, note that we cover a lot of ground, from improvisation that predominantly allows an artist to show off, to properly democratic collective improvisation. All these features can be found in jazz at any period in 20th century, which is why I referred to ‘appropriation’: it may not have borrowed exactly from all of them (yet!) but there is no reason why it should not. It’s a magpie art – you can pick up ideas from anywhere and everywhere, and above all utilise all your own personal experience.

This is also the key to improvisation, and why it’s so hard to teach – unlike teaching an instrument or the elements of music theory. If you ask a dozen musicians how they improvise and to describe their methods, you will probably get 12 different answers, and your own way of doing it will probably be a synthesis of all of them.

In one way, it’s no big deal. Anyone who takes pleasure in running their fingers over keys or a bow over strings, savouring the scales and arpeggios, the quirky melodies, the different sonorities that emerge (and what’s the point in playing an instrument unless you do!) is improvising. On the other hand, it’s the most demanding of all musical disciplines – requiring instrumental proficiency, rhythmic precision, all-round knowledge of harmony, sense of form and structure, appreciation of tonal quality and texture – exceeding the number of skills even a composer needs. And a composer has all the time in the world to create a piece – while the improviser has to produce results on the spot in real time!

You don’t have to be a virtuoso jazz soloist, however, to gain satisfaction from improvisation,and ensemble improvisation (eg adding harmonic backings or inventing riffs) is equally important. Developing useful all-round improvising skills is open to – and I would say essential for – any musician. How is this to be achieved?



In the first place, improvisation demands even more intensive listening than perhaps you’re used to. Whenever you hear a piece of music – on the radio, in a lift, at a concert, jazz, classical, hip-hop, it doesn’t matter – analyse it in your head. Can you separate the main elements – typically melody, harmony, rhythm – and hear how they interact? If you’re versed in music notation, imagine it on a page of manuscript paper; if you’re a keyboard player or guitarist, imagine the look and feel of the chords under your fingers.

Secondly, try to reproduce it, immediately or later. You’re not aiming for accuracy, just getting used to transferring something in your head into sound. It’s really important – but you won’t master this straight away – that you can hear everything you play before you play it. Better still, sing it before you play it! (And whenever you play from written music, practise hearing it in your head first.) Play a lot by ear, reproducing tunes (and your favourite improvised solos) as accurately as you can.

Thirdly, do all this with other people: swap, copy, answer melodic phrases with a friend; combine single-line instruments with harmonic ones and try out unusual chords and voicings; experiment with strict and free rhythm, not necessarily with percussion; and form a band!

It’s a good discipline to get as close as you can to imitating a particular style of music – Bach’s counterpoint, the way Tchaikovsky’s melodies and bass lines go in opposite directions (and the harmonic sequences that result), the rhythmic interaction of percussion in Afro-Cuban music, Miles Davis’s characteristic turns of phrase – and then discard it, or mix and match as you think fit.

Sooner or later you will find that all the elements of musical technique and knowledge, which seem so daunting on their own, reinforce each other and fall into place as one unified concept. Meanwhile, they can be broken down to teach you interesting things about different musical cultures along the way. Here are some examples.



Melodic improvisation can be approached effectively and creatively through Indian music. Harmony is not a consideration, and the rhythmic pulse can be simple (or indeed not present at all), so it’s possible to concentrate solely on the notes. A major scale with a flattened 2nd and/or an augmented 4th gives plenty of variation; for a more advanced challenge, move on to one of the many ragas (melodic modes) based on it.

Similarly, West African drumming provides a stimulating starting point for rhythmic improvisation, inventing cross-rhythms, call-and-response exchanges, stops, cues and signals to structure the music. Try adapting rhythmic figures in familiar [12/8] or [4/4] into the [7/8], [9/8] or [11/8] characteristic of Balkan or Turkish music.

For harmony, begin with the diatonic I-IV-V chord sequences of South African township music, Caribbean reggae (often just two chords, I-ii) and old New Orleans marches, which all have simple melodies and irresistible dance rhythms, before moving on to the more chromatic harmony and modulations of Broadway songs. The other three essential elements of music – expression (dynamics, inflection), structure and texture – can be explored in a similar manner.

It’s important that authentic exponents – South Asian, East European, African, Latin-American and Caribbean musicians – are involved in this process to inspire and give expert advice; and it would be hugely beneficial to young musicians if more of them could be brought into music education. After that, it certainly is mix and match, as your rag-based melody acquires harmony, a reggae bass-line and ‘Latin tinge’ rhythmic feel – or whatever combination appeals to you.

This of course is exactly how jazz emerged in the first place, in the cultural melting pot that was turn-of-the-century New Orleans, and has continued to develop ever since. This, I would argue, is what jazz really is; and the process and principles I have described are the only way to develop personal improvisation skills. There are no short cuts, and artificial devices like the so-called ‘blues scale’ simply impede the route to true creativity.

Inevitably, this short article can only scratch the surface of an extremely complex subject, and there are a myriad ways of tackling it. But improvisation is so important and so essential to general musicianship that we really need to take it on. A workshop leader faced with a heterogeneous collection of instruments, or group of musicians of different ages and abilities, has to use improvisation to weld them into an effective ensemble. This ability to think on your feet and live on your wits, to combine leadership with the fostering of cooperation, is surely also an invaluable life skill


  1. Listen more analytically to all music – can you separate and analyse all the different musical elements?
  2. Now imagine how that music would look notated or how it would feel under your fingers.
  3. Now try to reproduce an improvised version of it. Don’t worry about accuracy and keep on trying!
  4. Do the same thing with friends – get together and swap, copy or answer each other’s musical phrases
  5. Try this in different musical styles, from baroque to reggae – then start mixing and matching. You are on the way to creating some interesting improvised music!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: