Learning and Transmitting Improvised Music

Most improvised music traditions don't have an accurate written notation (Bailey 1980: 19). They tend to be taught and learned more aurally than through writings. In many traditions, recordings have become very popular very learning the style of improvisation, but learning with a teacher and imitating professional musicians are also still widely utilized methods of transmission.


Learning to play jazz and improvising using jazz language is a very time consuming process. It is just like learning a language, and one cannot expect to do learn it overnight. Jose Encarnacion, a jazz professor here at Lawrence University, says that there are eight main steps to learning tunes, and thus learning to improvise over them.

These steps are:

  1. Listen
  2. Transcribe / Play with the recording
  3. Learn the melody
  4. Learn the form
  5. Harmonic Analysis
  6. Scales/Chords
  7. Common note excercises
  8. Chord tone excerceses

Notice that the first four steps are primarily aural, and the last four steps are more theoretical, because it is important to be able to hear the tune you are trying to learn before you try to tackle more theoretical concepts.

Listening is first on the list because it is the most arguably the most important of those eight steps. Listening is where you get your feel from, where you learn how to swing, where you get your language from, etc. Transcribing is important because it is vital to know exactly what the great players played, and then assimilate that into your own playing, but with your own twist on it. Learning the melody and the form kind of go hand-in-hand. When doing a harmonic analysis you look at the solo you transcribed, and analyze how it makes sense over the chord changes.

Indian Ragas

Improvisers of the Indian Classical Music tradition have little written instruction and may only study with a learned musician (referred to as a “pundit” or “mentor/master” to obtain satisfactory musical training (Bailey 1980:8).

Indian Classical Music (both Hindustani and Carnatic) is historically and theoretically embedded in the spiritual life of the country, with the authority given in a religious context (much of the music pays homage to Hindu and Music saints, teachings, miracles, deeds, etc). Therefore the improviser has a role to uphold the spiritual and religious ideals within his own personal voice. This is one way that context (relevance) is used in order to create an understanding between the performer and the audience. Comparatively, this understanding is communicated with the use of the certain ragas very similar to the treatment major and minor (among other) sonorities in Western music (Bailey1980:8).


Many variations in Flamenco verses are learned by all the performers involved - singers, dancers, and guitarists alike. But particularly for the guitarist, the many variations on melodic and harmonic patterns are important to have access to. If peformed with a singer and/or dancer, the guitar serves mostly as accompaniment. For this, he must play with individual style, but being careful about how much virtuosity he exhibits during the verses. He must develop an ear for the singer and be careful to avoid too virtuosic displays because they could “break the singer's concentration” (Schreiner 66).

But the guitarist has much more say about what he does with the falsetas (which occur between every verse) since he is not acting as an accompanist. “Each guitarist performs the song differently and rarely creates completely new material in performance because the falsetas are prepared before the performance. They may be either composed by the guitarist, or it may be a falseta of a former teacher or performer” (Wheeler 45). Also, “Falsetas are passed down from teacher to student as well as composed by the guitarist, and in this way the art is constantly rejuvenating” (Wheeler 50). All of these different learned styles and variations of falsetas build the tool box that the guitarist has to bring out the best musical expression at the appropriate time. Flamenco guitarists learn to recombine all of their acquired variations and style pf falsetas to fit the context of each performance.


Overall, Flamenco is a style that, for the guitarist and other performers, is mostly passed on aurally through the variations of copas (verses) and falsetas (guitar interludes). “By dividing the song form in falsetas, the piece is easier to learn and arrange” (Wheeler 45)
There is little documentation of all of the melodies, compas (rhythms), or falsetas used. According to Bailey, most of the writings about Flamenco music do not accurately reflect the what the musicians play (1980:20). Inspiration comes primarily from listening to other guitarists. (Bailey 12)
Guitarists will use methods such as embellishing or elaborating on existing falsetas, changing rhythmic patterns, or building dynamic intensity. Other Flamenco guitarists can easily pick up on these methods of playing and then can incorporate similar styles and variations withing their own playing.


There is no widespread method of written notation for taqasim, the majority of learning is all done aurally. Musicians often start to learn this style when they are quite young. Learning usually consists of imitating other performers like friends or more experienced musicians who they may happen to come into contact with. Commercial recordings have also become a popular method of learning recently. Learners can memorize and copy the improvisations that master performers have recorded (Marcus 1993). One interesting direct comparison with North Indian music was made by Marcus who stated, “In North Indian music, it is commonly felt that a student can spend three to five years learning a given raga and, in a sense, master it without having studied a second raga. This is not the case in Arab music, where to master one maqam is to master virtually all the maqamat” (1992:175).

Free Improvisation

An actively developing tradition, free improvisation imbues a tangible sense of exploration in its practitioners. Newcomers aren't so much learning tricks of the trade or rote knowledge as much as they are refining their ability to listen to and communicate with one another in a musical setting. As these skills are intangible, much time and effort is devoted to playing music and listening to others play. Listening to music of all traditions, styles and skill levels can constitute a learning experience, and can be added to the wealth of information to be imitated, acknowledged, and disassociated from during performance.

Given the breadth of music to be “explored freely,” veterans are simply those who are widely regarded as having “explored” quite a bit of musical territory, carving out a distinctive sound along the way. Derek Bailey admits that “There are those for whom free music is an activity requiring no instrumental skill, no musical ability and no musical knowledge or experience of any kind,” (Bailey 1980: 100), suggesting that free improvisation is a discipline best taught to oneself, exploring one's only musical proclivities, regardless of technical ability. In this improvisation, Misha Mengelberg makes an interesting show of being nearly unable to play his instrument, providing a stark contrast (both musically and metacommunicatively) to Han Bennink's considerable skill only display. In short, in free improvisation, each practitioner is forever a humble student, constantly tasked with an unattainable objective, with no parameters or yardsticks by which to measure progress. So, all that is valued is honing one's craft - whatever that craft is.