In a question from around 8 years ago, one answer quoted jazz and rock/blues as using vertical and horizontal improvising, respectively. Never heard those terms. What are they representing?

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    Out of curiosity, what is the question from eight years ago?
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 10:10
  • @Richard - 'Student-teacher relationship: telling a teacher about another' - seemingly somewhat different, but an answer there quotes what's in my question.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 10:42
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    Here's a link to the answer in question. The user in question has not been on the site in some time. Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 17:49
  • While the intent of the 2015 answer does seem to be the same as j-g-faustus' answer here, it's an odd claim: "Popular Music ... (i.e. Rock, Blues, Metal, & Singer Songwriter folk) These are all horizontally improvised styles, played on steel string acoustics or electrics. ... Jazz Guitar Teachers teach a genre where improv is even more important than in rock, blues, etc. but it is approached from a very different perspective (called vertical improvising)." The first statement seems to be all about improvising "lead," aka soloing, etc. But ... Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 18:14
  • ... but it's an odd thing to say that those genres only improvise "horizontally." The author was thinking about jazz "comping," but these other genres play chords too; especially in a "jam band" context... Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 18:21

1 Answer 1


Horizontal improvisation: Improvising something like a melody, how the next note relates to the previous ones and how the line develops over time. E.g. "I'll jump a fourth and descend stepwise" is horizontal thinking, the focus is on what makes sense melodically.

Vertical improvisation: Improvising harmony, how it relates to other notes sounding at the same time. Other instruments (or yourself on piano) may play a chord and your improvisation should fit with that chord. E.g. "for this chord I'll target the third and a flat ninth" is vertical thinking, the focus is on making interesting harmonies.

They are different perspectives, thinking of what you are playing in different contexts. You can probably do better improvisation if you can do a bit of both. Just like analyzing a piece of music, you can focus on how one voice develops over time, or how multiple voices interact, but for the full picture you want both.

I don't know enough about improvising other styles like fugues to say much about it, other than that it's harder since you need to improvise the horizontal/melodic and vertical/harmonic components for multiple voices simultaneously. Without the fixed baseline of a known chord progression as is normally done in jazz.

The terms are presumably inspired by sheet music, where time is horizontal and different voices/instruments are laid out vertically.

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    Perhaps the distinction is somewhat reductive: Bach was celebrated for improvising fugues, which sure as heck has to do both at once! Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 14:46
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    @AndyBonner Expanded the answer a bit. But yes, although you can improvise with just one of them, you can do better with a bit of both, even for just one voice. I think the distinction is mostly to help students wrap their heads around it, so they can focus on one aspect at a time, and integrate them somewhere down the line. Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 18:08

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