Improvisational Music Throughout the World

We have compared different forms of instrumental improvised music throughout the world. Specifically we have compared them on the criteria of forms, methods of learning, group interaction, and audience interaction. Overall we have found that the five types of music we have studied have a fair amount in common in each of these areas.

Kinds of Improvisatory Music

Defining Improvisation

  • First we must define what improvisation means in music so that we can find out which styles of music warrant comparison.
  • Sawyer established a continuum from “ritualized” to “improvised” music within actions of group creativity (2003). The majority of our topics fall under the more improvised side of the continuum, while the flamenco style is closer to the middle, containing some ritualized aspects.
  • Bailey separates improvisation into two main categories: idiomatic improvisation, which is concerned with expressing and a specific idiom, and non-idiomatic forms which are freer and usually don't fit into a specific style (1980:4-5). All of our topics fit under idiomatic improvisation except for the free improvisation which is non-idiomatic.


American Jazz

Indian Ragas

The style of Indian classical music. Hindustani music is the music of the North and Carnatic music is the music of the south. Both heavily involve improvisation. (Bailey 1980: 7)

Spanish Flamenco

A style of music originating in southern Spain that incorporates guitar-playing, singing, dance, and hand-clapping. It requires instrumental improvisation to complement the improvisation in the singers and/or dancers.


Arab Taqasim

A soloistic style of improvisation popular in many Arab countries played on stringed instruments like the oud. It can be performed solo or with accompaniment.

Free Improvisation

A contemporary and western-centric improvisational movement, free improvisation seeks to eliminate idioms and culturally or traditionally-derived approaches to the music. Performed in (technically) any arrangement, free improvisation often consists of small groups of players, to accommodate thorough listening to all parts of the ensemble by all parties.

While free improvisation doesn't have “no boundaries,” as some cliches might suggest, players seek to adhere to as few constraints as possible. Music doesn't exist in isolation, and musical practice and performance influences and is influenced by many social factors, but players of the free movement find it worthwhile to attempt to play music disregarding quite a bit of secondary influence, only taking the immediate moment and interactions between players as the stuff of inspiration.
Derek Bailey, an immensely influential free guitarist, plays in his distinctive style while telling stories of his heyday.

Topics of Interest


Ayari, M., & McAdams, S. (2003). Aural Analysis of Arabic Improvised Instrumental Music (Taqsīm). Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 21(2), 159-216

Bailey, D. (1980). Musical Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Wheeler, W. (1993). Practicing flamenco guitar in Madrid, Spain: An event-centered study of accompaniment and accompanists in guitar lessons and dance classes. RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Manuel, Peter. (2011) “Composition, Authorship, and Ownership in Flamenco, Past and Present.” Roots Music. Ed. Mark DeWitt. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing. 221-50. Print.

Manuel, Peter. (2006) “Flamenco in Focus.” Analytical Studies in World Music. Ed. Michael Tenzer. Oxford: Oxford UP. 92-119. Print.

Marcus, S. (1992). Modulation in Arab Music: Documenting Oral Concepts, Performance Rules and Strategies. Ethnomusicology, 36(2), 171-195.

Marcus, S. (1993). Solo instrumental improvisation (taqāsīm) in Arab music. Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, 27, 108–111.

Nettl, B. (2008). On the concept of improvisation in the world's music: An informal talk. Dutch Journal Of Music Theory/Tijdschrift Voor Muziektheorie, 13(1), 1-8.

Sawyer, R. K. (2003). Group creativity: Music, theater, collaboration. Degrees of Improvisation in Group Creativity. Psychology Press. 139-161

Schreiner, Claus. (1985) Flamenco. Portland: Amadeus. Print.

Signell, K. (1971). Esthetics of Improvisation in Turkish Art Music. Asian Music, 5(2), 45-49

Susilo, H. (1987). Improvisation in Wayang Wong Panggung: Creativity within Cultural Constraints. Yearbook for Traditional Music, 19, 1-11.