What is the line between improvisation and spontaneity in music?

22 February 2018

Dr. Winslow,

I was talking with a few colleagues the other day, and I’m struck by the idea that some genres of singing utilize improvisation (real time composition) and artistic personalization, and others do not. Almost exclusively, classical singing is lumped into the latter by practitioners of the former. 

Assuming we’re talking about degrees of freedom rather than absolutes, I’d like to throw two ideas out from the classical world. First, written music on the page is a set of instructions for the mechanical process that makes a sound.(1) It does not capture the sound. It is impoverished in terms of detail, and asks for information to be filled in by the performer, often in real time. Even something as simple as a crescendo does not take into account a-symetrical spectral fluctuations over time as intensity changes. A crescendo on one instrument is an objectively different sonic journey from a crescendo on another. And these transformations are tame compared to how vocal timbre changes with variations in pitch, vowel, or intensity.(2) If you’re third synth player in the Philip Glass ensemble, ok... but if you’re singing as a soloist you’re making everything new at the moment of creation, with your antennas up, listening to and reacting to everything in your sound environment. This is what meaningful music making is regardless of genre. More elements of it may have been preordained in classical rep, but a compelling performance transcends the significant limitations of notation.

Second, improvisation is hard coded into tonal music itself. It’s the composer’s improvisation, but it can be read with the sort of spontaneity one finds in real time composition. Near all melodies in the classical canon can be understood as an ornamented version of a simpler melody. The only place we dependably find these simple, unadorned melodies is in children’s music.

I suppose this is part of a larger conversation as to whether there is something inherently musical or unmusical (or even meaningful, honest, or fun) about one style of music over another. I don’t doubt that one frequently hears soulless performances by classical singers. But I want to suggest that’s just because they’re disconnected from a meaningful performance tradition. I did almost all the credits of a jazz studies BM, and I promise that it’s possible to play jazz music, improvised solos and all, similarly soullessly. 

I think it’s easy to pile on classical singing because there are ready examples. But I'm curious what you think about the idea that classical music is not inherently sterile. There has just been a proliferation of inauthentic approaches to this literature, and an abundance of people attempting it. Everyone who teaches this rep at the highest level addresses musicality, expressiveness, and fundamentally the ability to move listeners. 

It is a cautionary tale in a lot of ways. Teaching traditions fractured and diluted through their spread not because classical rep was boring and imposed on the world. It was specifically because it was popular. This is something missed in current discourse, which focuses instead on a socioeconomic argument for the spread of, and institutional entrenchment of classical music. That it was unpopular, but served the interests of a powerful class. The more an approach allows this dilution, and spreading through academia is a sure way to do it, the more fractured it will become. It has happened with jazz. It will also happen with rock and pop the more they formally become part of academia.

Curious for your thoughts on this. 


Dr. Ian Howell
Voice Faculty
Vocal Pedagogy Director
The New England Conservatory of Music

(1) Paraphrased from Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot, Sonic Design: The Nature of Sound and Music (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 328.

(2) I was first introduced to this way of characterizing voiced sounds by Lynne Vardaman, but she learned it through the work of Cornelius Reid. Anyone who would like to know more can start here: https://corneliusreid.wordpress.com/pedagogy/