Musical improvisation should be the most accessible art form in the world. Almost everybody understands music well enough to enjoy listening to it and to know exactly what he or she likes. And the basic materials of Western harmony are really quite simple. So why do so many people think that improvising is something complicated and difficult, reserved for only the most advanced musicians? In this article I want to talk about five important myths that prevent many people from discovering the joy and fun of improvising.
MYTH #1: You need to know a lot of music theory to improvise.
For many people, their first exposure to “music theory” can be a confusing and depressing experience. For some, it can be enough to convince them that they will never understand music. But the good news for anyone who dreams of becoming an improviser is that music theory actually has very little to do with improvising.
This surprises most people, but I can prove it to you in two sentences:
1) Most music theory professors can't improvise.
2) Most improvisers aren't thinking about theory when they're playing.
As a person who has dedicated much of his life to studying both music and music theory, I want to make it clear that I am in no way “against” music theory. But my point is simply that it's not music theory itself that enables improvisers to create music.
What enables musicians to improvise is their ability to visualize the sounds of our musical system on their instrument. Music theory is merely the system that guided their studies while they were developing these visualization skills.
And traditional music theory courses are not the only way to develop these visualization skills. In fact, almost none of the greatest improvisers in history learned to improvise by studying theories and formulas. They may have studied some theory later on in life, but almost all of them learned to improvise through direct, personal experience with the sounds of our musical system.
This is the same experience that all beginning improvisers need to have for themselves. They don't need endless theories and formulas to tell them what notes to play. What they need is direct, personal experience making music with the sounds of our musical system. A teacher's job is to organize these experiences for the student in a way that is fun, exciting and creatively stimulating.
MYTH #2: Improvisation cannot be “taught.”
Truly improvised music comes directly from the imagination. So in a sense this myth is rooted in a partial truth. Nobody needs to “teach” you what to play because every human being already has the natural ability to imagine and create beautiful music.
But most people have no idea how to connect with this ability. How are you supposed to enjoy playing with the sounds of our musical system if you can't even see where they're located?
For more than ten years I taught classes in musical improvisation for all instruments. Many of my students were complete beginners who had never improvised before in their lives. But every single one of them was able to improvise once they learned how to visualize tonality (which is another way of saying, “the sounds of our musical system”) on their instrument.
So it's true that nobody needs to “teach” you things that you already have inside you like creativity, playfulness, sensitivity and musical taste. But almost everybody needs help in the beginning just to see where the different sounds are located, so that they can begin to enjoy working with them.
In my opinion, helping people to develop this skill of visualizing harmony directly on their instrument is what it really means to “teach” them to improvise.
MYTH #3: Chords and harmony are very complicated.
Our first experiences with harmony can be both captivating and mysterious. If you've ever learned to strum a few chords on a guitar, you know how enjoyable it is to play a beautiful sequence of chords over and over again, and just listen to the sounds.
But you also know the frustration of not being able to see the “big picture.” Why those chords, and not some other ones? And why does the melody fit so perfectly with the harmony? How could I ever write a song of my own?
I want you to understand that there is nothing complicated about chords and harmony. Just like a painter mixes different paints to produce very specific colors, musicians combine notes together to produce very specific sensations that we call chords.
The only reason why harmony seems complicated to most people is because they have never had the chance to experience it in an organized way. Playing a song on the guitar only shows you one possibility. It's like looking at a finished painting. But that's not going to teach you how to mix colors. The only way you're going to learn how to mix colors by mixing colors!
And that's exactly what you need to do with chords and harmony. You don't need a million rules and theories about how chords are “supposed” to be used. But you're not going to master harmony just by playing songs either.
What you need is for someone to sit you down and show you the raw materials of our music. You need to get in there and work with these materials yourself, and really get to know them. You need to see for yourself how we combine notes to make the different chords, and you need to improvise and compose your own original music with these new sounds.
Exploring the world of harmony can be fun, fascinating and beautiful. The trick is to know how to enter and explore that world for yourself, and that's really what I teach in Improvise for Real.
MYTH #4: I guess I just can't “go with the flow.”
One of the saddest consequences of not knowing how to improvise is that it causes so many people to believe that they have some kind of personal defect that prevents them from being creative. Sometimes friends or other musicians will try to encourage us to just “go with the flow” and play “whatever comes out.” But this is a very unfair situation for somebody who has never improvised before.
What are you supposed to play? You feel as though there are a million notes on your instrument and they all sound bad! But you're not alone, and the problem has nothing to do with your qualities as a person. No amount of “going with the flow” is going to help you to see something you can't see. How are you supposed to enjoy playing with the sounds of our musical system if you can't even see where they are?
All human beings have the natural ability to imagine and create beautiful music. You just need a little help visualizing the materials of your art so that you can begin to enjoy working with them. Once you get that help you'll be on your way, enjoying the thrill of improvising and composing your own original music.
More importantly, you'll discover a side of yourself that you didn't even realize you had. And you'll discover that you too can “go with the flow” just like the best of them!
MYTH #5: To improvise you need to learn licks, patterns and techniques.
Today many people teach improvisation as a kind of technical skill with rules and formulas. Essentially, they teach you techniques that you can use directly in your solos in order to play something that sounds good.
But even though these techniques can indeed help a person to sound very competent and professional, personally I think that this approach to improvisation kind of misses the point. To me, the whole point of learning to improvise is so that we can explore and express our own imagination.
That might sound kind of “far out,” but just bear with me for a minute. I want you to try to remember back to your childhood, all the way back to your first dream of being a musician. What was that original dream about? Was it about learning techniques and formulas so that your solos would sound “correct?” Or did you want to improvise because you imagined how great it must feel to express yourself creatively through music?
I think that there is something much more valuable at stake here than just learning a few tricks to impress the neighbors. For many of us, learning to improvise may be our only chance in our whole lives to really discover our own creativity, and to express the unique music that lies inside us.
So my advice is, don't be in a rush to learn all the licks and tricks just so you can sound exactly like everybody else. It's much more interesting to learn to improvise for real and to enjoy the beautiful discovery process of finding your own voice through music.
What are your myths?
I hope that you have found this article to be helpful, challenging and thought-provoking. You don't have to understand or agree with everything I say. But learning to think differently about these areas is the critical first step to musical mastery.
These underlying attitudes are what you might call the “inner game” of musical creativity, and getting clarity in these areas is actually an important part of learning to improvise. I encourage you to examine your own beliefs and attitudes with respect to these ideas. You don't have to accept my beliefs, but just start to think about these questions for yourself. Notice if you have any “myths” of your own that have prevented you from exploring your own creative side.
It's never too late to discover the thrill of improvising your own original music. To get your first taste of this exciting art form, I invite you to come and try some of the free lessons and activities that I have posted at www.ImproviseForReal.com.