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I have naively thought there weren't "rules" for improvisation, but I am starting to understand that there are. The instrument I play typically involves an ostinato and then one or two melodies, with periodic improvisational periods. Is there more I need to know than just "try doing it until you can make it sound good?"

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  • What is that instrument? It might help to say to get advice specific to its methods. Feb 21, 2020 at 16:05
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    the kora, an african harp.
    – Ben
    Feb 21, 2020 at 16:09
  • It also depends on what other instruments are playing at the same time. What plays ostinato, what plays melodies? What sort of keys do you play in?
    – Tim
    Feb 21, 2020 at 16:22
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    I play both the ostinato (with my thumbs) and the melody (index fingers). It is traditionally tuned in F, C, or Em.
    – Ben
    Feb 21, 2020 at 16:37
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    What music do you play? That changes the "rules" for improvisation too.
    – Pyromonk
    Feb 22, 2020 at 2:45

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Improvisation is spontaneous creation and performance.

One way to think about it is by analogy. Compare music to language.

You can recite a poem, something already composed like a Shakespeare sonnet. But, if you were really good with words, you could spontaneously construct a sonnet.

If you were to improvise a sonnet, you don't invent a new language, redefine syntax, disregard sonnet structure, ignore rhyme, etc. etc. Also, you probably would use a familiar theme or even modify an existing general narrative like overcoming despair with love and comparing that to spring returning after winter. You may be improvising the specific words, but you are not literally inventing everything from nothing.

Are those rules? Are those the necessary structures and pattern which make language intelligible?

Music uses similar elements. Chords are like words. Chord progressions are like syntax. Melodic periods are like rhymes. Meter is like poetic foot or spoken stresses. Those elements actually map fairly directly between music and language. But, other less direct comparisons can be made like variations of rhythmic figuration and melodic contour could be compared to rearranging words: 'The glow of the setting sun...' changed to 'Set sun. And glow, glow."

Just like in language, music has necessary structures and patterns that make it intelligible.

What are the structures and patterns depends on the style of music.

Are there "rules?" Call them rule, call them patterns, call them conventions. Call them whatever you like. That's just semantics. They exist. You can conform to the rules as a traditionalist or you can break them deliberately to be eclectic.

Is there more I need to know than just "try doing it until you can make it sound good?"

If the style were jazz or blues, there would be many, many methods to choose from. You wouldn't need to go about it blindly.

For the kora I have no idea what is available. But I would expect there are structures and patterns to learn about. From a quick read I gather kora is learned mostly by oral tradition. You might have better luck looking for video tutorials than books.

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There is more than one definition of improvisation, or more than one approach to it. It would be incorrect to assert it is spontaneous composition. After much reflection many people come to realize that what they thought was spontaneous was really the result of years of rethinking some of their favorite lines to tunes. One of my favorite definitions, due to an actor, is that improv is variation on a theme. Of course there are schools of thought that would say the opposite, that improv should be "free of form". But these are particular opinions and devices that drive the schools of thought. And create arguments about right versus wrong way to improvise.

You definitely need to know something to improvise but what specifically will differ from one school to the next. Following the variation on a theme school of thought all you need is to learn a song. Learn it inside out, learn parts that don't "belong" to your instrument. Learn everything about it. Then, after it's memorized, start editing it. Pick out a phrase that you like from the melody and try embellishing it, play it backwards, move this single phrase through the chord progression and see how it sounds. You might be surprised as how much you can milk a single phrase. Try changing the speed or rhythmic phrasing of the line.

You don't NEED music theory or a deep understanding of harmony theory to improv but it doesn't hurt. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking that you can ONLY play notes on the scale that fits over the chord and everything else is forbidden. This is an impediment to musical expression. The fact is that there are a small selection of progressions, harmonies, and other musical devices that are "standard" to the Western musical tradition. Once you understand the patterns you can do a lot with them on the fly. So it does help to know this but again, not a "rule" that cannot be broken. For example if you work through the Real book an overwhelming majority of tunes can be put in one of two boxes, the Blues, or Rhythm Changes. There are many others, I'd say the changes to How High the Moon is different enough but the classic Rhythm Change makes an appearance. This realization leads to two thoughts (1) if there are only two changes then how can all these tunes sound different and (2) if I follow the changes how will my solos not sound the same! The first though can be countered by an understanding of the importance of Melody over harmony and the second, pretty much the same. It turns out that you can harmonize all notes of any key with just three chords and via an understanding of chord substitutions there isn't much more to it. Also, in any key one can play what's called a circle progression, I->IV->vii->iii->vi->ii->V->I, which is just following a circle of 4ths. Just about every progression can be fit into a subset of this circle (modulo key changes, which do fit with a graceful entrance/exit from one key to the next).

Chords should support or follow the melody not the other way around. Once you understand that the chords aren't that special focus on melody and melodic phrasing. So the point of learning this theory, imo, is not to chase the third and seventh around the circle all day (one of the "rules" of improv in many jazz books) but to understand that as long as you respect the musical feeling of the tune you are playing anything will fit over it!!!! This is a very freeing concept.

If you really pick apart and analyze the solos of other players you will start to see some common patterns. Players in each genre of music tend to gravitate towards similar licks. These can be thought of as music memes (in the Dawkins' sense of the term). In other words lick choice is somewhat cultural. Every great blues player makes use of the same 5 licks, but they all put their own spin on it to make it original. Any player can add to the culture by trying to make up their own licks. This is an approach advocated by Jerry Cocker (and one that really works for me). Rather than learning a set of rules keep a note book with licks your wrote, that you think sound really cool. Then play around with fitting them into a set of changes. You will learn more about the patterns of music and be original at the same time. By comparison leaning a set of rules that you think are fool proof will just leave you over thinking everything when you really don't have time to think. And in the end all those "rules" can be broken.

You really can't be thinking when you are playing it just doesn't work. And some of my favorite solos seem to break every rule when I transcribe them. Learn the patterns by learning tunes you like and learn famous musical memes, then write some of your own. This formula works for many.

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  • This is helpful and a lot to digest. I may need some further clarification but something that sticks out is the discussion about Rhythm Change and the Blues, and the circle progression. Since the instrument is a diatonic harp (although I'm cheating and getting levers put on for several strings) it seems like Rhythm Change is not really open to me? But overall very helpful, and I will attempt to pick out the licks played by the well known kora musicians I listen to.
    – Ben
    Feb 24, 2020 at 13:43
  • I did not get all that from your original post. If you are playing ethnic music on this instrument, then I'd compare to Indian classical music. My comments don't change but in such music there aren't really "changes". They improve on Ragas, simple melodic ideas. I would say cultural indoctrination is key to understanding this style of improv.
    – user50691
    Feb 24, 2020 at 13:50
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There are many ways to improvise music and very few hard and fast rules, but depending on which approach you choose to use there are guidelines that can help you achieve the results you are after. I find an understanding of harmony is very important, along with a very pronounced familiarity with my instrument, a well developed muscle memory, and the ability to hear melodic phrases in my head that seem appropriate to the song structure as it is being performed. Add to that the ability to translate those thoughts into immediate action utilizing your instrument and you have a good chance of success. Harmony study was the beginning step for me, but I'm sure that if I had worked on my muscle memory or studied my scales, melodic phrases and fingering patterns first, I would have achieved my goals either way as long as I eventually included each point of study mentioned to help me understand when and what guidelines and methods I need to use at any given point in the process of improvisation. I have discovered that each area of study affects my understanding of all the other areas of study in music, and I'm always able to come up with new ideas that way. That is my experience.

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Composition is taking as much time (hours, days, years, ...) as needed to create a piece of music.

Improvisation is taking two seconds to creat a piece of music.

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  • Improvisation is composition in a hurry.
    – Hack Saw
    Feb 22, 2020 at 0:14
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    Composition is when you write down your improvisation. :) Feb 22, 2020 at 8:40

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