The Indeterminacy of Improvisation


This blog post is about improvisation, the concept of determinism, and what happens at the intersection of the two.  My primary goal is to redefine what it means to improvise and to provide players with a clear way of doing it honestly.

The post is set up in five chapters: (1) Introduction, (2) Determinism In Music, (3) The Experiment, (4) How To Go About Honestly Improvising, and (5) Conclusion.

Chapter 3 is built around the Improvisation Experiment, a video I produced. If you are a player, please improvise to it and answer the test subject survey.  Thanks in advance for any submissions.

Okay, let’s get started.

The Truth About Reality

Electrophysiological brain activity, known as readiness potential, begins moments before you are conscious of any free decision.[1] Impose this fact onto the temporal nature of music and some very peculiar truths about improvisation begin to emerge. One of these truths is this: In order to be the conscious writer of your own improvised music, you’d have to think of your licks before you think of them.[2]

Further damning to your improvisatory freedoms are your genes and your environment. No one is genetically engineered to play music and no one is fully in control of their own environment. Like readiness potential, these factors are outside the sphere of your immediate influence.

Put simply, your reality is comprised of a cascading sequence of events that are taking place outside the jurisdiction of your conscious self. Improvisation is just another one of these events.

This view of consciousness is called determinism.  Philosophers have divided the determinist into two camps: hard determinists and compatibilists.  The difference between the two is that compatibilist believe free will is compatible with the aforementioned facts and hard determinist do not. The other view available is that of the libertarians who believe a metaphysical agent, like a soul, is responsible for initiating your brain activity.

Whether you are a hard determinist, a compatibilist, or a libertarian, you must admit that improvisation, as a concept, is open to revision.

My Primary Claim About Improvisation

Decisions about notes, rhythms, and phrasing made while improvising are beyond conscious control but subject to careful planning and beholden to a vocabulary of melodic fragments that are accessed via rudimentary musical wishes.

Of course, the musical wishes themselves are beyond the scope of your consciousness because they too are happening before you are consciously aware.

Let’s take a look at what determinism means to music and to musicians.

Determinism In Music

As an improviser, you are merely a witness to music as it comes out of you in real time. There is no way for improvisation, as it is traditionally understood, to truly exist.

When you listen to an improvised solo, what you are really hearing is a recital of learned vocabulary that is being adapted and manipulated to fit the present moment. All of the adaptation and manipulation is taking place beyond the conscious control of the player.

The definition of improvisation as writing or composing on the spur of the moment must, therefore, be vacuous. You cannot create a logical view of improvisation given the fact that you are constantly behind the moment you would hope to spur.

The Scope of Improvisation

Let’s try to make some sense of this by unpacking improvisation a little.

Improvisation is a matter of three things: (1) one’s instrumental skill set, (2) one’s musical experience, and (3) one’s ability to process real time sense data into licks and phrases.

  • One’s instrumental skill set is obviously important.  You cannot play music that you are physically incapable of playing.  The years and years that go into developing instrumental skills have a profound effect on what kind of music you improvise.  If you grew up playing blues guitar you’re never in a million years going to improvise a fugue like Bach could.  (Bach, incidentally, was equally incapable of improvising the blues.) What kind of player you are says a lot about what you sound like when you improvise.

  • One’s musical experience is a related concept.  If you improvise routinely, say you’re a jazz saxophonist, then you are more apt to produce competent licks and phrases while improvising.  Conversely, if you are a classically trained musician who is married to the music stand, it is unlikely that you can improvise anything at all. What you spend your time doing musically says a lot about what to expect from your solos.

  • One’s ability to process real time sense data into licks and phrases is, perhaps, the most important factor here.  An improviser’s environment is usually feeding him or her these two things: the sound of the band and sight of the chords on the page.  Player’s ability to process these senses into good music will be a matter of ear training, music theory, and–most importantly–muscle memory.

Muscle memory is the organizing principle in this system.  Here’s how muscle memory works for me:

I hear or see a D chord, I knows several licks and phrases to use over D chords, muscle memory is activated, subtle variations and deformities occur–a distinct D chord-phrase is born.

Players activate muscle memory according to rudimentary musical wishes.  The wishes, derived from musical experience, and the resulting licks are sometimes quite divorced in form and content from one another. We usually think of these subtle variations as the core of improvisation.

The actual origin of the variations are, however, cloaked in unconscious darkness.

The Experiment

For this experiment, players are observed soloing over a randomized chord sequence and then surveyed about their experience. An audio recording of the session is then analyzed critically using a second survey performed by the experimenters.

I’ll make the following hypothesis:  Players lick choices will be derived from a vocabulary of melodic fragments culled from their muscle memory. Improvisers subjective experience will not be or authoring their licks but of witnessing their emergence.

Test Subject Survey:

  1. Have you played any of those licks or phrases before?

  2. Do you know the origin of your melodic fragments? If so, from where do they come?

  3. Which of the following best describes your experience: (A) complete control of the melodic content, (B) some control of the melodic content, (C) tenuous control of the melodic content.

  4. What, if anything, was uncertain about your solo as it emerged from your mind onto your instrument?

  5. Where you relying on the sense data of your eyes, ears, or both? If it was both, estimate the percentage of influence from each.

  6. Describe, to the best of your ability, what was going through your mind as you improvised. (Please avoid this stock answer, “I don’t know what happens when I improvise, I just play.”)

Experimenter Survey:

  1. Describe melodic passages and figuration. Are they similar in form and construction?  Are these passages clearly derivative from each other in that they repeat in either note order or in rhythm?

  2. Does this player seem to have a deep or shallow pool of melodic vocabulary?

  3. Are there holes in the player’s theoretical knowledge that is evidenced by their playing?

  4. Is there anything in the test subject’s playing that would suggest creative foresight in either large scale form or in correlated musical fragments[3]?

  5. Can you tell if the player is using the sense data from their eyes or from their ears? If so, are there qualitative difference between the two in the emergent music?

After the survey, the test subjects are asked to improvise again over the same progression. The difference is, now they can see the entire chord chart. Moreover, they have had the experience of playing through the changes already.

I submit that the melodic content and aesthetic value of the second pass will almost certainly be better than the first.

How To Go About Honestly Improvising

Players that maintain best in an improv setting do these things: (1) they are able to use a broad range of pitch sets and rhythms, and (2) they are able make their licks and phrases correlate with one another (i.e. the melodic fragments exist in balanced and aesthetically pleasing relationships to one another.)

Preparation, paradoxically, is the key to this.  Here’s how to prepare for improvising:

  • Learn other people’s solos note for note

  • Practice scales and arpeggios daily

  • Improvise to music you have never heard before frequently

Louis Armstrong, no slouch improviser, explained how to do it best: “First I plays the melody, then the melody around the melody, and then I routines”.  What Armstrong refers to as “routines” are sequences of pre-planned licks and phrases.  These licks and phrases are chord specific (taking place over the duration of a single chord), or regionally harmonic (taking place over a chord sequence).

Put simply, Louis Armstrong was chasing the chords.

One way you can go about doing this is by preparing and committing to muscle memory a lick for each of the four basic chord constructions: major, minor, diminished, and augmented. Develop and commit to muscle memory the following fragments:

Major melodic fragment
Major melodic fragment
Melodic Framgment 2
Minor melodic fragment
Diminished melodic fragment
Melodic Fragment 3
Augmented melodic fragment

The strategy, then, is simple.  Play these snippets of vocabulary over corresponding chords while improvising. (You may need to transpose, obviously.) Observe how you adapt and manipulate the fragments to serve the sounds you are hearing.  Notice what control, if any, you have over the content of the emerging music.


Here are my conclusions.

  • Improvisation, defined as creating without pre-planning, is an illusion.

  • Improvisers are shepherding a flock of pre-planned licks, deploying them via simplified musical wishes, and physically executing them under the influence of the sense data of the present moment.

  • Knowing what chord or what regionally harmonic figuration is coming next is the key to improvising a competent and aesthetically pleasing melodic phrase.

  • Players who are truly limited by the sense data of the present moment will produce clipped, effete, and aesthetically poor licks and phrases.

End Notes

  1. Readiness potential is the biological phenomenon of neuronal activity preceding conscious awareness. It was documented in the 1970’s by physiologist Benjamin Libet using EEG ( electroencephalogram) as he studied the brain activity of test subjects making free decisions. He noted that brain impulses occur some moments (up to 300 milliseconds) before test subjects are aware of their own decisions.  A more recent study, done in 2011 by medical doctor Itzhak Fried, used fMRI imaging to predict with 80% accuracy what test subjects would decide about simple motor functions a full 700 milliseconds before their own awareness.

  1. Much of the conceptual information concerning determinism and freewill that I’m talking about here comes from the book “Free Will,” by author and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

  2. Musicians can employ what’s known as a correlated chorus. This is an idea I first encountered while studying the history of jazz and reading a book by James Lincoln Collier–a jazz scholar, writer, and musician. According to him a correlated chorus is when the solo’s individual fragments logically cohere. The parts do this in one of three ways: (1) the pitch set of the first lick is re-used but in a different order, (2) two or more licks represent antecedents and consequences of one another. or, (3) the phrases increase or decrease intervals and rhythms from each other in exact multiples.

  3. I got this quote from Jazz–the PBS documentary by Ken Burns made about a decade ago.  It’s a remarkable piece of musical scholarship. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in improvisation.

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