What is improvisation in Classical Music?
On this page we explore many types of improvisation in classical music through historical examples. We divided improvisation in three categories: improvisation in one’s performance choices, improvisation on an pre-existent structure and ‘free improvisation’.
A different and mostly simpler approach is this video series, where we explain improvisation in 5 levels. Level 1 is for a child using LEGO as an analogy, level 5 is for a professional musician using our own practice as an example.
‘Improvisation’ is generally seen as the creation and performance of a piece simultaneously in the moment, and suggests spontaneous play. There are however degrees of freedom in improvising. Even with a written piece, each performance can be completely different, playing in a creative way with character, dynamics, tone colour, phrasing, timing, and tempo.
There are even more improvisatory possibilities in a written piece with the addition of ornaments, extra notes or flourishes between or on the main written notes. Improvisations can also be based on a framework, such as a fixed bass line, or a melodic outline, with some ‘precomposed’ elements and some ‘freer’ elements, as in variations. The freest forms of improvisation- such as the free fantasia- can sound completely improvised, without decisions taken beforehand. However, even in the freest forms, improvisation never appears in a vacuum, and there is always a stylistic background- where do the ideas come from? In comparison to performance of written music, improvisation is generally characterised by an element of ‘risk’. Stylistic choices lead to expectations, which may or may not be met, and even the possibility of ‘failure’ which gives the live experience of improvisation an excitement that is difficult to achieve by any other way.
Improvisatory performance of an existing piece
Improvising only with performative parameters
Before metrical notation, music was notated with neumes, small signs above the words, indicating the inflection and the direction of the melody. There were no exact pitches marked, but, with knowledge of the mode/scale, and the rhythm of the text, these small signs would be enough for a singer to know what to sing. Music was, in a sense, heightened speech, and, when notation became stricter, the model for the performer remained the human voice. The improvisation of ornaments, and the freedom of the performer to add other elements which could not be shown in notation, grew out of the need to imitate the subtle inflections and intonation of language, to add emphasis, to connect, and suggest the delivery of words.
“In the end I believe that the one and only true taste comprises a unified, clear tone, instrumental in one passage and singing in another. A sigh, a trill, a passing tone, a detached bow stroke, another slurred, a mordent; finally, all those different manners of varying the sounds that can be employed in the proper time and place”
Tartini, recounted in the travel diary of Achilles Ryhiner-Delon (1731-1788)
16th Century treatises give lists of ornaments or melodic patterns which can be learnt and applied to existing pieces. These are generally rhythmic subdivisions of slower note values, known as ‘diminutions’. Learning music and improvisation often involves memorising and being able to apply musical ideas.
Improvised diminutions on the madrigal Vestiva i Colli for 5 voices
In the 17th Century, a more operatic style emerged with Caccini, with ornaments such as the exclamation, intended to imitate spoken declamation. This was also the time of the Stylus Fantasticus, intended to be played in an improvisatory way with rhythmical freedom, and to express affects or emotions.
In the 18th Century, the French style was characterised with small, subtle ornaments-such as the ‘leaning’ port de voix. Italian ornaments tended to be more outgoing and extravagant, especially in the free ornamentation of adagios, with examples by Corelli and Tartini.
But, like many musicians, Tartini came across the problem- how much to add of their own?
In the 19th Century, we tend to think that composers wrote precisely what they wanted. But even in orchestras, musicians were so used to improvising, that Spohr had much difficulty getting musicians to play what was written. In opera, singers carried on practices of ornamentation in Bel Canto style.
Instrumental soloists continued to imitate these ornamental practices of singers; examples of this can be heard in the music of Chopin. Although the melismas are written out, he would always expect his students to play differently each time. In his Ausführliche theoretisch-practische Anweisung zum Piano-Forte-Spiel, Hummel gives an account of ornaments and how to play expressively. For soloists, there was still a lot of freedom with portamento, vibrato, rubato, and tone colour.
Ornamentation can be used to vary the repetition or a second time of playing a piece. There are examples of this in ‘doubles’ by Couperin, and by Bach in the ‘doubles’ of partita in b minor for solo violin. Here, each movement is played a second time, but with flowing figuration.
The end of a phrase typically carries the most ornaments or additions; the cadenza is the most extreme form of this, where the time stops to allow for a free flourish before the end. Described by Quantz, this normally takes the time of one breath, and is an extended ornament around one chord, generally the dominant. Although typically a cadenza is a solo addition by one player, Quantz gives a method which allows two players to improvise a cadenza together. In the 18th Century, cadenzas in concertos became longer, and took the form of freer improvisations.
Improvisation on an existing structure
Improvising on a cantus firmus
A Cantus Firmus is an existing song or melody, which remains more or less unchanged, but to which other improvised parts are added. The Basse Dans of the 15th Century typically consists of a ‘tenor’ in long notes, over which two instruments would improvise; for the large outdoor occasions, a typical instrumentation would be sackbut (playing the tenor) and two shawms. In the 16th Century, an example of a florid improvisation for viola da gamba on one of these tenors, ‘La Spagna’, is shown by Ortiz.
Improvising on a Gregorian chant melody (Super Librum) was practiced widely in churches in Italy throughout the Renaissance and Baroque. A simple way to do that was Fauxbourdon– singing the same melody, but a third and a sixth higher. More complex ways involved canonic or imitative lines over the tenor. In organ music, improvisations based on a chorale as a tenor (as, for example, in the chorale preludes of Bach) has remained an important tradition up to today.
Improvising on a bass
The foundation of Baroque music is the basso continuo. The players of harmony instruments, such as harpsichord, organ, lute, and harp, improvised the harmonic realisation from just the bass line, with the help of figures which would tell the player which chords to play. This practice gives a lot of freedom for the performers to accompany in different ways, according to the playing of the other musicians or the acoustic. Agazzari (Del Sonare sopra ‘l basso) mentions how, if there are several harmony instruments improvising the basso continuo line, they should listen to each other, and find their function in the ensemble. For example, the lute weaves ‘the voices together with long groups, trills and accents, each in its turn, that he gives grace to the consort’, while the harp with ‘echos of the two hands’ aims at ‘good counterpoint’. Interestingly, the violin, normally seen as a melodic instrument, is also mentioned as an instrument suitable for accompaniment; it ‘requires beautiful passages, distinct and long, with playful figures and little echos and imitations repeated in several places’.
Musicians of the 17th and 18th century learnt composition, improvisation, accompaniment and performance through Partimento, improvising on bass lines and learning harmonic progressions. Partimenti are pieces consisting only of the bass line, leaving the performer to supply the rest.
The actors of the improvised theatre form, Commedia de l’arte, also used stock bass patterns in order to improvise new songs.
“A student should always aim for rhythmic variety. .. At first the only important thing is to contrive as many forms as possible. Incorporating thus the forms of variation and its technical possibilities in one’s mind will be of great advantage when the student later tries to invent real melodies, instinctively and spontaneously”
(Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Models for Beginners in Composition’)
Variation is the repetition of a musical idea, always changing something, finding as many ways as possible of playing or presenting it; it is one of the best ways of developing creativity, and forms the cornerstone of improvisation in many styles.
A ground bass is a short bass line/ chord pattern, which is repeated many times, allowing new melodies to be improvised on top. One of the most famous is La Folia, with examples by Corelli and Vivaldi, and in the 19th Century, Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Ortiz (Trattado de Glosas) gives four voices, ‘guidelines’, to the Passamezzo Antico, which can be varied and ornamented; this allows an ensemble to improvise without clashing with each other. Christopher Simpson, in the Division Viol, describes how two players can communicate together improvising on a ground bass using motifs back and forth. After the ‘Viols have thus (as it were) vied and revied with each other’, there follows a ‘constest in breves, semiminimes and minims’.
Niedt, in his Musicalische Handleitung, shows how dance rhythms can be applied to a longer bass, to create a suite. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, perhaps one of the longest and most developed variation sets written, explores many textural and contrapuntal as well as rhythmic possibilities, each variation almost a piece in its own right.
Gigue on the bass of the Goldberg Variations
Variations are often applied to popular songs. In the 17th Century, the Dutch recorder player Jacob Van Eyck wrote variations for solo instrument, consisting mainly of melodic figurations and ornamentations on a theme. For keyboard instruments, there are many variations on songs such as ‘Bonny Sweet Robin’ in the Fitzwilliam Virginal book. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, improvising variations on existing melodies was a common practice (such as Mozart’s competition with Clementi, when he improvised variations on ‘twinkle twinkle little star’).
Beethoven claimed, he only wrote down his variations in order to prevent people improvising in his style and variations on famous opera melodies formed an important part of the virtuoso tradition of Paganini and Lizst.
In canon, one voice leads, and the others follow, as it were ‘chasing’ each other. Here, the ‘structure’ is not a fixed melody or harmony, but consists of rules determining what intervals can be used for the melody of the leading voice, so that the other voice can imitate exactly. Canons have been used in all styles throughout history. In 16th Century, Sancta Maria gives rules for canons (Art de Taner Fantasia), and in the 18th century, there are examples by Mozart and Telemann (Canonic Sonatas).
‘Free’ Improvisation of complete pieces
“ A piece of confused-wild-shapeless kind of intricate play, in which no perfect form, shape or uniformity can be perceived, but a random business, pottering and grooping up and down, from one stop, or key, to another….. more fanciful play, more intelligible… is a way, by which he may more fully show his excellency, than by any other undertaking, and has an unlimited and boundless liberty”
Tomas Mace, Musiks Monument
With knowledge of harmonic patterns from partimento, it is possible to improvise a complete piece in almost any style and form of tonal music- even sonatas- and fugal improvisation is practised especially by organists. However, the forms most associated with improvisation of complete pieces are those which by their nature appear free or spontaneous.
The word ‘ricercare’ means ‘to try’. It has its origin in tuning, ‘trying out’ a motif at different pitches, on the different strings of a violin, for example, and in ‘researching’ a musical theme. Typically, a motif is imitated in different voices or registers. Bassano gives examples of this for a solo melodic instrument.
Ricercares are also polyphonic, for several voices (a precursor of the fugue), and in England were known as ‘fancies’ or ‘fantasia’, as described by Christopher Simpson:
“divisions of three parts are not usually made upon grounds, but rather composed in the manner of fancies, beginning with some fugue, and then falling into points of division answering each other, sometimes two against one, and sometimes all engaged at once in a contest of division”.
Improvising canons forms one of the basic techniques of improvising such pieces. Another is shown in Bach’s inventions, where generally a limited amount of musical material is used, often only two musical ideas, fitting together in many ways.
Hotteterre describes a type of prelude for only one melodic instrument, in which both a basic melodic structure (usually a scale) and ornaments on it are improvised. Stile Brise is a way of improvising a prelude with harmony, only using arpeggios, such as Bach’s first cello suite. The French Prelude Non Mésuré is also harmonically based, but in a free style; notated examples by composers such as Couperin are without bar lines or exact rhythmical values, so the performer follows the line and the harmony, as it were ‘improvising’ the rhythm.
The ‘toccata’ of stylus fantasticus was developed especially in organ works by Frescobaldi and Buxtehude, and can also be heard in the violin sonatas of Biber. It is characterised by free runs over a long held harmonies or pedal points. Many composers, such as Bach and Vivaldi, used the possibilities of string instruments to create the same effect even without bass (for example in the prelude of Bach’s E major partita for solo violin), using a specific violinistic technique known as barriolage, alternating a melody on one string with a bourdon on another string.
The Free Fantasia is often compared to the landscape garden; planned, so as to appear wild and natural. Described by CPE Bach, and later, by Czerny, it is full of harmonic surprises and seemingly unrelated sections.
In the 19th century, a new type of fantasy emerged; this is the ‘potpourri’ which combined free fantasia with quotations from, and variations on, other pieces or famous operatic themes. Another is the caprice, which takes a musical idea inspired by the possibilities and limitations of the instrument.