Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective
Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective

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1 The creation of music

1.1 Composition and improvisation in the world's musics

I want to begin with some general issues. Since the words composition and improvisation will play an important role in this chapter, where better to start than with definitions of these two terms?

Activity 1

What do the concepts composition and improvisation mean to you? How do they differ? Note down your thoughts, along with some examples of composed and improvised musics.


I wonder how close your definitions are to those given in the New Grove Dictionary? The first sentence of each is given below. (These extracts do not do full justice to the complete entries, which you may be interested in looking up.)

Composition: a piece of music embodied in written form or the process by which composers create such pieces.

Improvisation: the creation of a musical work, or the final form of a musical work, as it is being performed.

(New Grove, ‘Composition’ entry, p. 599; ‘Improvisation’ entry, p. 31)

These sentences, brief as they are, suggest a couple of differences between these concepts which you might also have thought of. First, this definition of composition features the word written: a composition is, to most of us, a piece of music committed to notation. Secondly, the definition of improvisation stresses the creation of music ‘as it is being performed’: according to this view improvisation is instant and doesn't allow much time for consideration (let alone notation).

If we elaborate these two points, a picture emerges of two quite different scenarios. The composer writes music down, taking his/her time, sketching and revising until the music is as near perfect as it can be. The improviser creates music instantly, without sketches or corrections. In the words of Willi Apel, an earlier dictionary editor, improvisation is ‘the art of performing music as an immediate reproduction of simultaneous mental processes, that is, without the aid of manuscript, sketches or memory’ (Harvard Dictionary, pp. 351–2).

As examples of composed and improvised musics you might have thought of some of the following: for composed music, most Western art music; as improvised music, jazz and, perhaps, one or more non-Western traditions such as Indian art music. By the end of this free course you will have had an opportunity to think about these assumptions and to re-assess them. The idea, for instance, that Western music is exclusively composed is rather an exaggeration: there are numerous examples of improvisation in our art music tradition. The common view that most non-Western musics are improvised is even more dubious, especially if we accept Apel's definition of the term. As the ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood claimed in response to Apel:

If, by definition, the processes of improvisation are devoid of manuscript, sketches or memory, then I must conclude either that I have never heard or witnessed improvisation or that such processes simply do not exist.

(Hood, 1975, p. 25)

The fact is, most of us don't actually know very much about improvisation. To many students and practitioners of Western art music, improvisation is a foreign concept. Jazz (or Indian, African or other music) can be a puzzle, dismissed by some as a lesser art and accepted by others only as some kind of unfathomable mystery. When we hear a piece of Indian music, and say that the musicians must be great improvisers to produce such music without a score, perhaps we are really saying that we don't know how they do it. What will emerge as this chapter progresses is that the more we find out about ‘how they do it’, the more inadequate our concepts of composition and improvisation become.

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