How do musicians who actually improvise in classical music, such as Robert Levine, JS Bach, Edgar Meyer, church organists and classical ballet pianists, compose in the moment?

Are there any fundamental differences in the technique of improvisation employed by classical musicians that is different from jazz and folk improvisers?

  • 1
    This is a cool question, but the “too broad” close votes are probably apt. Perhaps break this down more by period or technique or even composer/performer? You could ask specifically about basso continuo for example. Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 9:46
  • 2
    I've edited and reopened -- broad is off-topic, but general is not.
    – NReilingh
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 5:19

6 Answers 6


"Fundamental differences" is something that is open to interpretation. Jazz, a great-great-great-great step-grandchild of classical music certainly shares some of the rich musical heritage of European and African traditions which gives it "hybrid vigor."

Nevertheless, classical music improvisation delves into many areas that jazz only hints at.

Here's Robert Levin lecturing on "Improvising Mozart"

My answer here is a very rough summary of the book "Improvising" by Gerre Hancock which was strongly recommended to me by church organists and ballet school pianists back in the 90s when I first started investigating melody-based improvisation. Sorry jazzheads, traditional jazz is mostly based on improvisation from the chord substitutions of the original melody, a fact confirmed by a highly recommended book, "The Jazz Theory Book" by Mark Levine. And I grew up on and love jazz. But I'm a bit weary of the average jazz trio playing melody once through, then noodling on the chord changes for a while and then returning to playing the melody once before ending. The striking exception to this gross over-simplification is Bill Frisell, who leans very heavily on melody-based improvisation.

Here is a direction to pursue in classical improvisation:

The Scale (each of these exercises are in 8 bars/measures)

  1. Create a melody diatonically, using only one octave and starting and stopping on the tonic.
  2. Create a melody as before, but add another voice with the melody as either the top or bottom voice.
  3. Create a scale melody as before but add a third voice
  4. Add a fourth voice and move in a circle of fifths, now moving out of the 8 bar format into varied formats.
  5. Avoid all accidentals, playing only on the white keys, until you have mastered this. Then start introducing chromatics.

The Phrase

  1. Create phrases by improvising answers to questions. Call and response is an incredibly strong musical trope that you can hear in all genres in music. It evokes something very primal within us.
  2. Create answers in two, three and four voices
  3. Start diatonically and then introduce chromatics.

The Interlude

  • Improvise an interlude of known length, with or without a change of key

The Song

  • Using the 8 bar phrases, create a song of the form AB where A is a 4 bar question plus a 4 bar answer and B is a 4 bar question and 4 bar answer in a different key which returns to the key of A.

The Sonata

  • A bit involved to go into here, but the sonata form is:
  1. Exposition: Introduction of question and answer.
  2. Development: Question and answer are stated then combine.
  3. Recapitulation: Question leads to answer then a triumphal ending.
  4. Yes, we're still improvising here. Improvising a sonata is part of the exam that French organists have to take. They are given two themes and then have to improvise a sonata. Robert Levin, a noted interpreter of Mozart, does this in concerts.

The Canon A simple canon is when the lead voice makes a statement, then pauses while the following voice repeats the statement and makes a new statement and around and around.

The Fugue Improvising a fugue and counterpoint is unfortunately beyond my competence to explain well. I have composed and played fugues but they are mostly of fascination to me and not so much for the audiences I play for.

So you see that modern rock and jazz have yet to dive deeply into truly rich sources of improvisation. I await this moment with hope and joy.

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    i have yet to devise a method for voting up twice, but on the day i can macgyver such a thing, i will revisit your answer. once for the text, and once for the video, which was captivating. Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 7:52
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    Improvising a . . . a fugue? Is that even possible? Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 4:53
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    Yes. Google (something like "fugue improvisation") should get you some resources. In fairness to jazz players, organists improvising fugues are playing solo. Jazz is usually played in groups, with everyone (whether soloing or accompanying) improvising simultaneously. A set chord progression is part of what makes that possible. Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 16:45

I'm a classical improviser and teacher thereof.

I think of improvising as a classical musician as musical conversation (assuming I am playing with someone else or with several people): I talk about something I are familiar with in a comfortable way (I don't try to talk too fast or use words I don't know). The other person listens to what I have said and then responds, adding their own ideas. In spoken conversation, only one person can talk at a time, but in music, more than one can "speak" at a time.

The style may be anything. Could a be a lullabye, a fanfare, a march, a serenade, a children's song, anything. It could be an original melody or a familiar tune.

Improv is fun. It is easy. It brings together music performance, theory, history, composition. It is the other half of musicianship that has been excluded from music study for the past two centuries (although it was always a part of music tradition before that).

It is making a comeback, and hallelujah for that. It is a great aid to practice and to teaching. It doesn't have to be a re-creation of old music. You can improvise in any style you like, any style that you conjure in the moment. Improvisation needs a new definition - it's not just jazz.

Improv just means you get to pick the note. Improvisation is not about virtuoso playing. It is about virtuoso listening. Get Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch for a brilliant discussion of the spirit. Or any of my books as practical guides. Or not - just start. Today.

  • Hi Jeffey. I've added paragraph breaks to your answer because I think it makes it easier to read. Feel free to revert or change it if you don't like the places I've chosen. I hesitated in breaking the "it is..." chain, but editorially, I like the emphasis it brings out. Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 3:53

Jazz and folk improvisation tends to be 'over the chords'. The song structure is retained, a new melody is improvised.

Classical improvisation is typically more akin to 'composition on-the-fly'. The melody, harmonies and structure are all newly created.

Having said this, both genres rely heavily on knowledge and experience. What sounds like amazing, spontaneous genius to a layman listener will be much more a matter of putting together known building blocks to the seasoned performer. It's dead clever, even involving a spark of genius, but it ain't magic!

'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.'

'Any sufficiently advanced craftmanship is indistinguishable from creative genius.'


From my pianist point of view, I would say that:

  • Jazz pianists pretend that improvising jazz is different from improvising classical or baroque music because they have poor left-hand technique so that can only play chords in the left hand but not nice melodies. So their left hand cannot musically "talk" with their right-hand as Bach or Mozart does in his pieces.

  • Classical pianists pretend that improvising in the classical or baroque style is different from improvising jazz because they have poor rhythmic technique, and have difficulty learning all the jazz harmonies: diminished modes and altered scales. Furthermore they don't understand all the notes played by Charlie Parker in his solos.

So the answer is "No, that's exactly the same, with only some subtleties."

Also note that many jazz and classical improvisers cannot improvise in the 'cocktail piano' style very well, this style of playing being, in my opinion, at the exact halfway between jazz and classical music.

  • Citations needed. Plenty of jazz pianists play more than chords in their left hand--left-hand walking bass is very common, for example. And lots of classical pianists have fine rhythm and are perfectly capable of understanding harmony more recent than the 18th century. Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 16:51
  • @BruceFields Hi. Of course, this was only a suggestion : don't think it is different, just work it if you like it. And there are only a few pianists improvising in many different styles, not only jazz, while most of the organists improvising in contemporary classical music don't play jazz.
    – reuns
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 17:01
  • Reaching the level of mastery required to improvise well in either genre takes years of effort. It's not a surprise that few people manage to reach that level in both. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 14:34
  • @BruceFields Yes, that's why I share my experience : don't be afraid, say, to pretend you are Liszt or Art Tatum when playing.
    – reuns
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 15:24

Easy answer: does classical music differ significantly from jazz and folk music? If you find it does, then improvisation in these genres differs in the same way. But I realize you are asking about more general methods or approaches to improvisation and that may be much harder to answer. However, I'd recommend reading Derek Bailey's Improvisation. He has interviewed improvisers in classical music, various folk traditions, jazz and free improvisation, so there you will find a sample of opinions from people who know what they are talking about.


It's the same 12 notes, with many many of the same principles. "genres" don't actually exist, they were invented as a quick way to distinguish things. Debussy, Ravelle, Mahler use "jazz" harmonies all over the place, before the genre of jazz even existed. There is no clear threshold as to when one genre begins or another ends. You're can improvise a fugue in the style of the Beatles, do a 12 bar blues based on a Bach invention. Don't be discouraged by snobs who like everything to stay in neat little boxes.

  • "Classical improvisation delves into areas that jazz only hints at." Yes let's all applaud this completely inaccurate, elitist dribble. Heard and analyzed every last jazz improv on the planet have you? So canons, fugues, sonatas, rondos etc - these structure are totally exclusive to classical musicians? If a jazz musician uses such a structure and applies it to a different harmonic language, the world will explode? What kind of forum is this where the educated truth is spat upon, yet sheer ignorance is agreed with? Is Donald Trump running this site or something?
    – Brian
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 19:36
  • When Beethoven delved into pre baroque forms and integrated them into his own classical/romantic language, it was considered revolutionary. Whereas when Keith Jarrett integrates strettos and fugual counterpoint into his jazz solos, he can only "hint" at the sophistication of a genre that simply eludes his capabilities as a humble jazz musician!
    – Brian
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 19:56

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