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
Call & Response:
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
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.
- Pick a specific emotion before beginning.
- Play melodies that express this emotion.
- Listen to others and attempt to interact with their melodies (unless
the emotion picked implies you should not, ex: frustration)
Some examples of emotions:
- Pick two (or more) moods and after developing one, transform
the emotion to another.
- Approximate times for each emotion can be predefined or arrived
at by consensus while playing.
- Have everyone pick their own mood to express and players then
attempt to interact musically. Have them guess each others mood once finished.
Improvise Scenes or Pictures:
Instead of emotions choose other brief descriptors for starting points
- City street
- Winter snowfall
- Summer evening
- Sunset at a beach
- Whales singing
- Cats fighting
- Looking to cause trouble
This follows from the concept of Programme Music, the depiction of images
or pictures with music.
- All players perform what they choose:
- The only rules listen to each other and you dont have to play all of
- After you play a phrase, repeat it mentally before playing again. This will lighten
and vary the texture so that there is a greater variety in the overall result.
It also serves to momentarily distract the student from the surrounding
activity so that when they resume playing they tend to react to their surroundings
rather than playing personal clichs or finger tricks.
- Specify a specific scale (or a few to work through either ad
lib or on cue) to limit choices or timid improvisers or to create a sense
of tonality or consonance. The scale can be major, minor, pentatonic, or
a few notes. With more than a single scale specified, develop cues to move
from one to the next, or cues to indicate which to move on to next.
- Specify a set of tones to begin with. The choice of pitches
can gradually increase or suddenly change to a new set of pitches, either
ad lib or on cue.
Notes per Breath:
- Begin playing with only one pitch for a whole breath.
- Then play two different pitches for the second, three for the
- Keep playing until you lose track of the number of pitches to
be played, or the number that you have played.
- All players pick a note and play it, breathing and restarting the note
- One at a time, players change to a new note gradually changing the
sound of the overall chord.
- The order can be specified, cued or improvised.
- Instead of one note, each player plays a brief phrase and holds the
last note while the next takes a turn.
- Instead of only holding a note, the same note can be repeated as desired
adding a rhythmic element to the texture.
- Specify the number of notes per breath. For example, add one more note
for each new breath. This creates a gradually accelerating texture with
the number of notes increasing as the improvisation progresses.
With a conductor:
- All (or some musicians) change on cue, several cues can be specified
or the conductor can cue individuals by pointing at them.
- Vary the speed of each change for dramatic effect
- Specify different chords (a selection of notes for each player
to choose from can be as simple as C7 concert tuning), for different cues.
For example, define three chords to be cued with one, two or three fingers.
- Specify a chord, with a cue for either hit the chord (tonic)
or hit something other than the chord (non-tonic). With a cue for counting
down to the final chord, progressions can be improvised. For example: the
countdown can be cued with the number of fingers of the left hand, while
the right hand indicates tonic with a closed fist and non-tonic with an open
hand. Within an amorphous texture a conductor can now signal simultaneous
attacks from all instrumentalists and exert some controlover the consonance
of the resulting sounds.
- Pick an interval.
- Begin a melody, after the first note the next must be the given
interval in the chosen direction above or below the first note.
- The third note can be any one that continues the melody but
the subsequent pitch must be the given interval above or below.
- Every second note must be the chosen interval away from its
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:
- Transformation of the cell,
- o each repetition should relate
to the previous incarnation
- o size of internal intervals
can be changed
- Inversion, cell can be played upside down
- Retrograde, cell can be played backwards
- Retrograde Inversion, cell can be played backwards and upside
- Emotional content.
Specify which of the above parameters to be used, either singularly or
Improvise from a written theme or melody, its form or structure can be
varied as you wish. Some possibilities can be specified, such as:
- Repeat sections, phrases or parts of phrases as desired, especially
with difficult passages.
- Vary the way you play short excerpts, repeating it differently
- Transpose sections and repeat as desired. Play the same sections
in different registers or with different dynamics and accents.
- Explore motives in various parts of the melody by repeating
and transforming them.
- Reorder notes
Some parameters can be left undefined, such as:
- Rhythm, all notes are written as the same length, usually whole
notes for slow passages and eighth notes for faster ones, but this can vary.
- Relative lengths of notes, but not exact rhythms.
- Chords or note clusters can be written, with the improviser
selecting melodies from these notes.
- Pitch, play anything between specified pitches yielding a register
to play within.
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.
 This exercise
was first introduced to me by Charles Ellison, professor of Trumpet, Concordia
University, Montreal, Quebec, circa 1990.
 Steve Naylor,
professor of Electro-Acoustic Music, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova
Scotia, circa 1994.
 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.