Improvisation and the Art of Play

Improvisation is as old as music itself and, today, we hear musicians improvise all the time.  Jazz, Blues. Rock, Country, Soul, and R&B are just a few of the genres in which improvisation plays a part.  Even Classical music, which, in our time, focuses on the interpretation of great compositions of the past, was once a thriving scene of world class improvisors. Did you know that..

In 1808...

In 1787...

In 1747...

  • J.S. Bach improvised a six-part fugue for the King of Prussia that became the inspiration for one of his greatest compositions, A Musical Offering?
One could probably liken the task of improvising a six-part fugue to the playing of sixty simultaneous blindfold games of chess and winning them all.
— Douglas Hofstader

The opening of J.S. Bach's Musical Offering (Berlin State Library photo)


Improvisation and Creativity

Improvisation is at the heart of how we create and how we learn.  Recent studies suggest that improvising musicians are more likely than others to use divergent thinking -  a reliable measure of creativity - in problem solving situations.


Improvisation and the Brain

Charles Limb, a surgeon and research scientist at the University of California, San Fransisco, (as well as an accomplished jazz saxophonist) demonstrated in a 2008 study that musical improvisation produces a neural state that is "uncannily similar to REM sleep", a time when the brain is at it's creative peak.  Using an fMRI to observe jazz musicians performing various activities, including improvisation, Limb's study revealed the striking neurological transformations that take place during musical improvisation.

My future starts when I wake up every morning. Every day I find something creative to do with my life
— Miles Davis

Improvilirium! and the Art of Learning

Improvilirium! The Beginning Pianist's Comprehensive Guide to the Joyful Art of Improvisation helps students acquire the skills they need for a lifetime of creative music making.

Improvilirium! book cover

Improvilirium! is the only comprehensive beginning piano method that employs the pentatonic scale to help students develop a rich vocabulary of tools for creative improvisation. Combining imaginative rhythms with compelling melodic and harmonic content, each song in Improvilirium! encourages students to listen for patterns and structures in the music they play.

Over time, as skillful habits of hand are acquired and creative listening becomes second nature, students are delighted to find that they can easily add improvised solos to their songs!


The Pentatonic Scale

The pentatonic scale, which fossil evidence suggests is over 40,000 years old, is found in traditional music all over the world.  Today, the pentatonic scale, and it's close cousin, the blues scale are at the heart of Jazz, Blues, Pop, Rock, Soul, R&B, Gospel, Folk, Bluegrass, and many other musical genres.  Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy employed the pentatonic scale extensively, as did George Gershwin.  The spirituals, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, This Train is Bound for Glory, and Amazing Grace are just a few of the thousands of folksongs and spirituals that use the pentatonic scale. 

In the early 20th century, composers like Zoltan Kodaly and Carl Orff developed music curriculums for elementary classroom education based on the pentatonic scale. These methods, which are still in use today, use the pentatonic scale to engage kids' musical imaginations and encourage creative self-expression.


Creativity and Learning

Improviirium! not only helps students learn to improvise but also helps them develop a deeper connection with the music they love.  As students develop the habit of creative listening, they approach new music of all kinds with curiosity and open ears.

Life is a lot like jazz. . . it’s best when you improvise
— George Gershwin


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