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Improvisation isn't Composition

Feb 10, 2024
Imagine you've got this idea for a novel - wait no one reads anymore? Damn. That does not bode well for this newsletter...
Imagine you've got this idea for a Tik Tok.... ok, I really need something a bit more substantial to work with here.... let's say a movie?
Imagine you've got this idea for a movie.
You know the names of all the main characters. You know the big plot twist you want to shock the viewer. You have a general idea of the aesthetic you want to achieve with the opening shot.
For this example, you even have a team of professional actors and production crew. They will make this thing exactly the way you want it.
The actors keep asking you about the script. You say "oh, actually, I don't want to spoil my raw creativity by planning out the dialog beforehand. I need to wait for inspiration to strike for my pure, unfiltered artistry to flow forth. Writing lines would destroy my spontaneity. It wouldn't feel like an honest expression of my visio....."
Of course, at this point your crew and cast have walked out, leaving you only with the purity of your self-delusion.
This story seems pretty ridiculous, right?
But in music, I see it thrown around all the time that the less you think about or develop your ideas, the better your music must be. As if it's somehow more pure the less you think about making it. I've always found that a bit odd.
It's because we love exploration and experimentation. Yet, we fail to realize that there's a whole other level to experimentation. We never even tap into it when we don't move beyond the improvisation phase.
On top of that love of experimentation, many of us who have studied music have had someone tell us that making stuff up is wrong. They said we should only study a certain set of rules. So our natural reaction is to do a 180 against that notion. And while that's understandable, we've thrown the baby out with the bath water.
What is improvisation and how can we use it?
Improvisation is a wonderful thing. It's one of my favorite tools for getting ideas out. Those of you who are members of my Composition Course have seen this in action. It's like a mining expedition for ideas I can then develop or refine further.
This is where skill with an instrument is most useful. To improvise you need to have enough ability to be able to explore effectively.
It's a different experience than programming everything in midi or with a sequencer. There's something about the tactile interaction with an instrument. You're able to find ideas more quickly.
More traditional instruments like a piano or guitar are limited. That's good.
Your sound palette is more or less fixed. But this allows you more freedom to explore pushing the notes around without other distractions. They're more limited in sound, but more flexible harmonically and melodically.
So, improvising in this way is great at giving you a starting point. There have been times when I've stopped at that point. In fact, I have a few albums that are just captured improvisations.
I love those albums. However, my best work usually comes when I take time to develop those ideas further.
The Problem with Relying on Improvisation
Improvisation is like having a conversation with someone. You're doing everything on the fly. You'll probably choose words you've used before.
This is the case for improvising too. You're making it up on the spot, so you rely on places your hands have traveled before - you rely mostly on muscle memory.
The more skill you have with an instrument, the more you can recognize these familiar patterns. Perhaps you can even break out of them during the improvisation. Even for someone like myself who has played piano for a long time, I still find my hands falling into the places they're most comfortable. The places they've been the most.
The Solution
This is where composition comes in, and what separates it from improvisation. It's an editorial process as well as a creative one. It requires trial and error. Sometimes more error than others...
I once heard author John Hendrickson say that he had come to think of his stuttering as an opportunity. It made him think through his ideas more carefully before he said them. He had to take this extra time out of necessity. Instead of just letting it frustrate him, he put it to use as extra time to edit his thoughts before he said them.
This is exactly the effect writing down an improvised idea has for me. Writing something down is a self editorial process. It takes time. You have to think about what you're doing.
If I've been lazy while improvising an idea (like playing the same note too many times in a melody) I may not realize it until I write it down and see it clearly.
There are many times when my ear will catch some weakness in my improvising, but not know exactly why. Writing the idea down or at least capturing it in midi almost always reveals the reason and allows me to make adjustments.
Music is Modular
I don't mean modular synthesis here - that was last week's newsletter...
What I mean is that most music is made up smaller sections. These sections work together or react against one another. The craft of composition is about making those sections feel like they belong in the same piece of music. It's about creating contrast without switching harmonic languages mid phrase.
These sections are like pieces of a puzzle. It takes trial and error to figure out how they work together optimally.
I spoke more on the modular nature of music and gave some examples in this previous newsletter.
Taking the time to develop an improvisation into a composition isn't always necessary. But it also won't lessen that initial idea.
In fact, if the composer has the skill to edit (compose) effectively, it should strengthen it.
Whenever you're ready, here's how I can help you:

1. Composition Concepts for Artists - an in-depth look at the process of composition with step-by-step examples SHOWING how and WHY I make decisions. You'll learn to take an initial idea and DEVELOP it into a finished project.

2. Understanding Synthesis - learn to design your own sounds starting with the basics of subtractive synthesis and progressing to more advanced sound design  with semi-modular and various forms of digital synthesis.

3. YouTube Membership - monthly livestreams featuring music making and sound design in real time. Q&As and exclusive videos only available to channel members.

4. One to One Coaching (coming soon) - work with me on YOUR own music. I'll help you take your track from idea to finished product, so you'll come out with a polished track or EP and any knowledge gained from walking through the process with me.