Improvisation Games:

Creating Spontaneous Music in Groups

By Trevor Dimoff

Any music compositions can be understood as a game, with the rules varying in latitude for different musical idioms. A work by a Classical composer has rather specific instructions with all notes defined; however, the performer has some freedom in phrasing, dynamics and subtle changes in tempo. Regardless of how specific the score is, each performer introduces personal variation. A jazz ensemble performing a jazz standard by has more relaxed rules. Typically the melody is performed, followed by solos by each instrumentalist with another repetition of the melody to round out the work. Within this framework, each performer is permitted to improvise their version of the melody or variations built on the underlying chord structure subject to the interaction between musicians. Despite the increase in freedom, there are still rather rigid rules underpinning this style. Free Jazz continues across this spectrum, but in many cases completely discarding predefined form in favour of spontaneously co-created structures.

This compendium of improvisation games is primarily intended for medium sized groups (3-8) of instrumentalists but these activities can easily be adapted to larger and or vocal ensembles. They are essentially self-contained exercises but they can also be considered musical textures that can be incorporated in to larger compositions. A conductor is not required to direct most of these activities but using cues can increase the level of complexity of the textures created with these exercises. Experience with improvisation is helpful but even neophytes can create and develop interesting ideas when trust and experience are fostered.


Call & Response

Improvise Emotions

Improvise Scenes or Pictures

Free Improvisation

Notes per Breath


Intervallic Improvisation

Motivic Improvisation

Twisting Themes

Beat It Apart

Notes per Breath

Call & Response:[1]

A common jazz device; originally derived from Lining the practice of a choir leader, priest or cantor singing a line of a hymn that was repeated by the largely illiterate congregation.

One person plays a bar of music (call),

All others reproduce the same bar of music (response) as closely as possible (include articulation and dynamics).

A call can be as simple as one pitch with rhythmic variation

For beginners, specify the first pitch. Begin each new call with either the first or last note of the previous call.

As players gain confidence, increase the complexity and then the length of each call.

The goal is to develop rapid, automatic reaction to what is heard.

If mistakes are made in the response, repeat the call, simplifying or fragmenting it into smaller components if necessary. One effective rule for ensuring this is: any call is valid as long as it can be repeated by the caller.


Call and Answer: each call is an incomplete phrase; respond by completing the phrase.

Pass the Phrase: Each response is a continuation of the previous call. The call can be a predetermined length from one to many notes or varied ad lib. Move from one to the next either in a predetermined order or by cuing.

Improvise Emotions:

Some examples of emotions:


Improvise Scenes or Pictures:

Instead of emotions choose other brief descriptors for starting points in improvisation:

This follows from the concept of Programme Music, the depiction of images or pictures with music.

Free Improvisation:


Notes per Breath:



With a conductor:

Intervallic Improvisation:[3]

Intervals have different characteristic sounds so a texture of predominantly minor thirds is dissimilar from one created from major thirds or perfect fifths. Pick other intervals to experiment with, explore all possibilities.

Variation: Choose only the size of the interval, disregarding the interval quality until facility with the exercise is achieved. For example, use third rather than a major or minor third.

Remember that the primary goal is to create interesting and musical phrases. Vary the rhythms, accents and dynamics to develop effective melodies.

Motivic Improvisation (Cellular Improvisation):

Inspired by the thematic improvisation of Sonny Rollins and the early atonal compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, the improviser uses a motif or musical cell to guide the improvisation.

A motive (or musical cell) is a short musical idea which can be defined by pitches, intervals or rhythms. They can be used to create larger melodies as the basis of entire works. Beethovens Fifth Symphony is based on a four note motive and its accompanying rhythm.

Decide on a motive to start with and begin improvising with it. For example, a pitch motive might begin as B, C, A before it is subjected to transposition and transformation. A specific rhythm could be short, long, short, short, long with no initial tempo or beat designated. A motive could be as vague as move up, then down then up.

Some parameters to explore include:


Specify which of the above parameters to be used, either singularly or in combination.

Twisting Themes:

Improvise from a written theme or melody, its form or structure can be varied as you wish. Some possibilities can be specified, such as:

Some parameters can be left undefined, such as:

Beat It Apart:

Chose or improvise a short phrase. With this as a point of departure, gradually transform and modify the phrase. Each repetition should be related to the previous version but try to continue creating new and interesting phrases. Change the rhythm, articulation, dynamic, tempo and emotional expression while modifying the initial materials.

Notes per Breath:

Begin playing with only one pitch for a whole breath.

Then play two different pitches for the second, three for the third. Keep playing until you lose track of the number of pitches to be played, or the number that you have played.

[1] This exercise was first introduced to me by Charles Ellison, professor of Trumpet, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, circa 1990.

[2] Steve Naylor, professor of Electro-Acoustic Music, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, circa 1994.

[3] Don Palmer, professor of Saxophone and Director of Jazz Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, circa 1991. The original exercise, called Interval Jam was assigned for solo practice to improve the speed of aural recognition of and physical performance of various intervals.

[Games] [Courses] [Copyright]

This page maintained by David A Reid, Email: