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I've been discussing with musos what similarities and differences there are between improvising and jamming. There seems to be a lot of vagueness here.

Some say that improvisation is one player making up melodies over established chord sequences, others that it's really confined to jazz (what about Liszt, et al !?) while jamming is starting from basically nothing, and each player adding their own part to the ensuing jigsaw.

So is it a case of all poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles, in a way - or are there actually defined differences? There are certainly similarities, but could one finish playing in an ensemble situation, and say 'that was a good improv', or 'that was a good jam' with any exactitude? And would it be fair to say one (or both) are applicable to any particular genres? or definitely not, as the case may be? Dictionary definitions are also mixed and vague on the issue.

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    Both terms have unclear definitions but there's almost certainly a lot of overlap. Since the whole question depends on individual definitions of the terms: VTC as opinion-based. This was also discussed on meta.
    – PiedPiper
    Feb 11 at 12:07
  • @PiedPiper - I appreciate and know it was discussed on meta, but with no particular outcome, so I felt an open question might elicit something more lucid. There are undoubtedly folk out there who can proffer their take on the words - does that then mean it's subjective?
    – Tim
    Feb 11 at 12:38
  • Did you preface this question by saying it’s subjective and you know it or am I misreading the first paragraph? Feb 11 at 13:00
  • @ToddWilcox - I meant there seems to be several different explanations to the terms - I'm trying to get some consensus to their exact meanings, which may, as so many terms do, mean different things on each side of the Atlantic, for example. Trying my utmost to avoid the dreaded subjectivity!
    – Tim
    Feb 11 at 13:10
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    I think I'll vote to close, but I wouldn't call it a "subjective" question. Rather the issue is it's more about language than about practice. Since different groups use the words in different ways, the only true objective answer is to document the ways that different groups use them. And that to me seems more about semantics than about the actual jamming or improv itself. Feb 12 at 13:56

4 Answers 4

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Jamming and improvisation share common ground but they are like music and noise. Music can be thought of as noise but it is not noise, it can be a sheet of paper with notes or performed within subconscious thought. Noise can be music but it is not music, it can be just noise (although Frank Zappa would have probably argued this with some cosmic perception of reality).

The definition of improvisation is to perform something without preparation or without a plan. What they are referring to there is strictly the act of improvising, what you play (irrespective of the accompaniment, such as backing tracks) is the improvisation.

This gets fuzzy when you consider that most improvisation (with other musicians or backing music) uses a prepared theme like a key (eg. A minor) or a beat (eg. 4/4 120bpm). This would be called a jam session but the improvisation is anything played during the jam that was made up on the spot.

Jamming is not a type of improvisation, to 'jam' means to play with others, it's an exercise that brings the musicians together (like sticking bread together with jam). Jamming implies that the musicians are learning each others musical style in the process, building their relationship (musically speaking) with one another. Jamming will probably include improvisation but jamming is not improvisation.

Also note that because of slang usage of the (slang) term, jamming can also refer to a musician on their own for example "he has been jamming in his room all day". This would refer to the musician jamming (building the relationship) with his music or instrument rather than other musicians.

To summarize the confusion in detail:

Jamming usually consists of some improvisation where the music is made up spontaneously as it is played. The opposite could be a rehersal and thought of as "practicing" where a specific piece or song is played through by everyone.

Improvisation can be referred to as jamming when talking about the growing bond between the musician and music (here music refers to a song, musical theme, other musicians, or instrument) or where the music sounds unprepared.

Everyone jamming could be improvising at some point but they could also be practicing a set piece with no improvisation.

You improvise, you make it up.

You jam, you gel with external sources of music.

both imply the inclusion of some kind of unpreparednesses.

It's not vague at all, it's clear as mud.

Edit: to attempt to answer your questions

Some say that improvisation is one player making up melodies over established chord sequences

I've played for years in bands and we all improvised at the same time, every time we got together, to see what ideas come up for new material. I think they're just saying that's one way to improvise, if that's their final and complete definition of improvisation then I'd suggest they get out of the house a little more.

jamming is starting from basically nothing, and each player adding their own part to the ensuing jigsaw.

that's the standard jazz configuration, the group holds a scene and they take turns trying to pull everyone off course. the idea is that a jazz band should put faith in whoever is improvising, faith that they will bring it all back together somehow before the next persons turn.

defined differences? similarities

yes, think i covered that earlier

edit: the only percieved similarities are when we're talking about a session where that "session" could be called both an improvisation and a jam. It can also be said that the musicians in a session are jamming and/or improvising.

could one finish playing in an ensemble situation, and say 'that was a good improv', or 'that was a good jam' with any exactitude?

probably, if any of it was improvised then it could be called a good improv. jam could always be used because even a performance is a way to gel with the group.

would it be fair to say one (or both) are applicable to any particular genres? or definitely not, as the case may be?

not a chance. it is used everywhere

it's really confined to jazz

no, not confined at all, it just originated from jazz. as did the term gig which was derived from engagement meaning engaging with an audience. I've been to a few metal gigs, sure you could argue there's always at least some influence that jazz has on metal but... you get my drift

Dictionary definitions are also mixed and vague on the issue.

They're pretty spot on, it's where the definitions use the other term that's confusing maybe. Example the term jamming will have the word improvisation in its definition and vice versa.

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    It's certainly possible to prepare for an improvisation and/or have a plan.
    – PiedPiper
    Feb 14 at 13:51
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    The second line defining improvisation has some problems. Performance without preparation can also be a description of sight reading. Also, a lot of improvisation is based on well worn and practiced patterns. Feb 15 at 21:04
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    "jamming is not improvisation" this seem flat out wrong. If a band was jamming, and later someone asked "what were you playing?" or "where can I get that music?" the musicians would likely say something like "I was improvising that music." Feb 15 at 23:46
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    A band practicing songs: rehearsal. Feb 20 at 14:39
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    Can't we just admit that neither term has a strict definition? @Tim, I'm ashamed of you for accepting that over-long, rambling, often self-contradictory answer!
    – Laurence
    2 days ago
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It would be pointless to cite Wikipedia, so I'll write this from the top of my head.

Musical improvisation means creating some aspects of music, whatever that is - chords, melodies, rhythms, lyrics, mixes or modular synth routings - on the spot, so that the content hasn't been pre-planned, but you make choices as you go along. The act of improvising can be pre-planned or scheduled, but the exact outcome is not. Choices are made on the spot. Any dimension of music can be improvised. If a DJ is not following a pre-written playlist, the song selection is improvised.

The concept of jamming in music has more of a social perspective to it. Jamming is spending time concentrating on what feels good, without pressure and expectations to deliver a very specific, known performance with a specific known length. Usually it means that some improvising goes on, but a drummer can contribute to jamming by playing a steady 4/4 beat without really improvising a note. I think the two main points of jamming are: (1) trying to make oneself and others feel good, (2) without a lot of pressure and expectations on particularly how long it may and has to take.

If you say it was a good jam, it means that the participants succeeded in making you feel good.

Improvisation can be done with tight constraints. For example, a player may be told to play something, anything, to fill a ten-second period of time with musical sound. It has to be improvised, but I would not call that jamming. Or when a session player (a thing of the past) was given a chord chart, they had to improvise their parts, but it wasn't jamming.

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  • An insightful look at the differences, thank you. Looking forward to some other views from other experienced musos! +1
    – Tim
    Feb 11 at 14:26
  • but the produced content was pre-planned to be improvised :S
    – yarns
    Feb 14 at 13:14
  • @yarns Yes, you understood me correctly. Feb 14 at 18:23
  • I agree. The important point is the final product is something new, created on the stop. That final product may be made of elements that are preplanned, practiced, preexisting templates, etc. incomplete or abstract as separate parts. Feb 15 at 23:13
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    don't you think the word "jam" is more closely related to gel with one another than to feel good? the other slang usage of jam is a sticky situation like "you're in a jam". I'd say jam is more related to glue :shrug:
    – yarns
    Feb 16 at 4:01
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Improvisation could be defined many ways, and I don't think the point of this question is to find some kind of complete, authoritative definition. Improvisation means some elements of music are not composed out and will be determined on the spot in performance. Usually there is some kind of template, an abstract structure or pattern, guiding the choices of the improviser. Lots of musical elements can be improvised: drum fills in rock music, melodic embellishments in classical style, melodies over chord progressions in jazz, etc. etc. In this sense improvisation is a broad term about making musical choices spontaneously. Lots of styles and lots of techniques can fall under the category of improvisation.

Jamming is much more specifically about improvisation in pop/rock/jazz styles and I think strongly implies improvising with a group of people. A band of musicians is what usually comes to mind. Some groups are even called jam bands, because they do a lot of extended improvisations in pop/rock/jazz styles.

If you think of something like a Baroque violin sonata, the keyboardist will improvise a harmonic accompaniment above a composed bass, while the violinist play the melody with improvised embellishments. Those two musicians are improvising elements of their performance, but you would not normally describe them as "jamming." That would be an anachronistic use of the term "jam."

On the other hand, if that Baroque duo started to play the same violin sonata with a swing feel, maybe syncopated some notes, added some blue notes, etc. you might say they were "jamming," because you have the improvisation elements, and more importantly the jazz band associations.

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  • our answers were ultimately the same in length, I just found it was necessary to add the "summary in detail" section to address the many points of view (which for the most part aren't wrong). you state the most common use of the term but not what it actually means which leaves it only useful in certain situations.. the question is asking for clarity, not one aspect of the terms used in a contained context.
    – yarns
    Feb 16 at 4:08
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I've been discussing with musos what similarities and differences there are between improvising and jamming. There seems to be a lot of vagueness here.

...are there actually defined differences?

No. And we should have the confidence and academic integrity to say so. We could discuss it for weeks and come to a consensus on what the difference MIGHT be, or OUGHT to be, but that's not really any use to anyone.

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  • Sounds more like an opinion than anything else. Could you expand on a terse answer please?
    – Tim
    2 days ago
  • @Tim Why? Terse is good. Say what you've got to say, then stop. We see far too much waffle in answers here already! But ok, I'll pad it out a bit...
    – Laurence
    2 days ago
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    @Tim and Laurence too. After reading the other answers I can clearly see a consensus as to the distinct core idea of each, to which the other elements are optional: for jamming it's the social aspect (bonding), for improvisation it's the musical aspect (free flow within some boundary while revolving over some structure, sometimes with finality like a concerto cadenza or a chorale prelude). What a session is called depends on which aspect is primary although both are present. Success is measured by the core aspect. 23 hours ago

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