Composed vs Improvised music

As a guitar teacher who often deals with newcomers to both the guitar and music generally I find it is commonly not appreciated the extent to which improvisation is an element of popular music styles.

That improvisation assumes you can already play the instrument is true as a matter of degree. At one end of the spectrum lives the singer/guitarist with a handful of chords and a bit of an ear while at the other sits the highly arranged jazz orchestra with solo spots for practitioners of those polychromatic arts.

Composed music is notated. The degree of players' reliance on a score during performance depends on many factors - opportunity/capacity/desire to memorise. Again there is a spectrum from reading at sight through to full memorisation.

The thing to appreciate is that pre-hearing is effective for both types.

In performance the player pre-hears each phrase in the instant prior to execution so that at that precise juncture the distinction between composed and improvised becomes redundant. The player draws on (i) the score (ii) memory alone or (iii) memory plus creative impulse to internally assemble and shape each phrase before moving on to the next.

It could be argued that "internally assemble" here simply means "compose" so that the distinction devolves to that between music that is notated or not rather than that between composed and improvised.

As a younger ardent jazzer person I used think that there is something inherently exciting about even the crudest impro and something equally dull about even the most expert classical performance. Judging from YouTube comments that point of view is alive and jibing but I can no longer subscribe having since experienced much more of the best and worst of both genres.

There's no doubt however that translation of graphical symbols, to the extent that it is part of a performance, is while necessary also something of an evil. It's a topic that continues to fascinate me and I'm firmly of the view that beginner students should be developed concurrently along both streams: that is to enjoy the immediacy of memory as well as the practicality of reading.


True generosity toward the future consists in giving everything to the present. ~Albert Camus, L'homme révolté

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