Improvisation and Composition

Here are a few thoughts of mine on the subject of Music Composition and Improvisation. I also suggest you check out Jerry Rockwell’s web page, which has an excellent article on improvisation from the view point of someone educated in the subject, and includes some very interesting links.

Music and the Tyranny of the Printed Page

A bit of personal information: If you really want to make me crazy, say something like, “That’s not how that song is supposed to be played, it wasn’t written that way.”

“SO WHAT????” <sorry, done shouting.>

Music is in the air, it is not on the printed page. Anyone’s performance of a piece of music is an interpretation of that music, no matter how faithfully they try to reproduce the composer’s wishes (which can never be known completely, if at all). The interpretation is successful or not to the extent that the listener enjoys the performance. Since “enjoyment” is an entirely subjective judgment, then, in principle, ANY performance of a piece of music can be considered a “good” one if either the performer or the listener likes it. A printed score is a guide to your interpretation of a piece of music, nothing more.

This is not to denigrate considerations that may exist such as “historical authenticity” of a musical style, but these are not my considerations. A performance may be a “bad” example of a traditional style but still be a “good” listening experience.

I do this all the time. I’m not a “traditional” player of the mountain dulcimer, just a performer and composer who happens to play the mountain dulcimer. While some of my music is “derived” from traditional sources, (in the same sense that Americans speak a language “derived” from English) I make no attempt to play in a traditional style, and make no apology for my failure to do so.

So what does this have to do with composition?

For me, composition is a natural outgrowth of playing. composition is what happens when you become familiar enough with the instrument you use that you can simply play music, without having to play a particular piece of music.

Actually, there is another consideration. For it to be a “composition” it has to be possible to play it more than once, at least sufficiently similarly so that that it is recognizably the same tune. Otherwise you are improvising, not composing. There is nothing wrong with this, quite the contrary. Improvisation, IMHO, is the root of composition. All of the compositions I have done began as improvisations that, one way or another, I was able to “capture” before they evaporated into the aether.

So how do you keep them from evaporating? I don’t really have a good, all purpose answer for this. At one time, I tried to keep a small tape recorder with me at all times, so that I could record all my improvisations. This, I came to realize, was only partly successful. I did get the “germ” of one of my compositions this way, just recording everything that went by. (Brandon’s Delight, on “Dandelions & Tulips“) But in general, I found that doing this tended to reduce the spontaneity of my playing.

Sometimes re-occurring motifs or phrases will start coming up in my improvisations. This is usually a clue that there is a composition somewhere in there, trying to get out. Eventually it will escape. It used to bother me a lot that I’d occasionally improvise something really good, (or so I thought) but be unable to do it again. I’ve now made peace with myself with the realization that this music is not really lost, it’s still there in my subconscious. If it’s really good, it will come back.

When I do get something that I think is a “composition” and not an improvisation, I’ll make a “notebook” recording of it and later maybe try to write it down in notation and tablature. Then I let it rest for a week or two and come back to it. Sometimes this works, sometimes not.

I wouldn’t recommend this process for someone who had a deadline to compose a set of pieces for a movie sound track, for example, but but it seems to work for me.

The Value of Mistakes

I find it easy to get into a rut. You find ways of doing things that work, and it’s difficult to make a change, no matter how old and tired they become. Sometimes, however, as I’m playing or improvising, I’ll make a mistake, I’ll play a note or chord that I hadn’t intended. Usually when this happens it sounds pretty gawd-awful, but occasionally when it happens the “mistake” works. By chance it makes a kind of musical sense in a manner that I wouldn’t have discovered if I’d tried to do it on purpose. The challenge now becomes to be able to make the “mistake” again, and to use it in a coherent manner. Don’t think of them as “mistakes,” they’re “unplanned variations.” You should try to keep such “unplanned variations” to a minimum, especially when performing, but don’t discard them too readily either. Accept that mistakes happen. Learn. Move on. And try not to wince.


I must insert a caveat here. I have little or no formal music education. No doubt many of those of you that do are able to approach composition from a more deterministic viewpoint. I have the greatest respect for you, I often wish I could approach it that way as well. The music theory that I have is what I’ve been able to pick up sort of “along the way” by reading such works as “Dulcimer a la Mode” and Jerry Rockwell’s “Music Theory and Chord Reference for the Mountain Dulcimer,” and from taking music lessons from Jerry for a couple of years. But while a person with a formal music theory and composition education can do remarkable things, music composition is not limited to those few that have graduated with a degree in theory and composition. Anyone can do it.

Once again. “Anyone can do it.” But can they do it well? Maybe. They’ll just have to try it and see. You learn by doing. To paraphrase a forgotten source: “If you want to learn to read, then read. If you want to learn to write, then write. So by extension, if you want to learn to compose, then compose.”

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