The importance of phrasing in improvisation – music is a language

Improvisation is the spontaneous creation of melodies in real time, without prior preparation of written music.  It involves a lot of imagination and creativity, and is not as hard to learn as you might think.  There are many tools that can help you improvise:

  • Scales – ordered sets of musical notes, such as the major scale or pentatonic scale.
  • Sequences – a repeated pattern of notes moving up and down the scale.
  • Melodic patterns – a repetitive pattern or figure that can be used with any scale, similar to sequences but more sophisticated.
  • Random notes – self-explanatory.
  • Double Stops – two notes played at the same time.
  • Triads – 3 note chords.
  • Arpeggios – chords played one note at a time.
  • And most importantly: Phrasing – the equivalent of creating sentences and paragraphs with music instead of words. This is the key to how good improvisers say something with their music.

Phrasing is the most important part of improvisation. With good phrasing, you will actually say something with your music, and people will understand what you’re saying. Music is a language, and like any language, its goal is to communicate. When you speak or write, you are communicating ideas by using words in a logical and articulate fashion. It’s no different in music. Notes are like words, and many notes can be strung together to form a lick (or motif), just like you’d string many words together to form a sentence. Then, just as you’d combine several sentences to form a paragraph that communicates an idea, licks can be strung together to create a phrase, a musical passage that has a complete musical sense of its own, and can be used to form large sections of related musical passages that convey musical ideas.

  • Notes = Words
  • Licks = Sentences
  • Phrases = Paragraphs

Just as you wouldn’t write a paragraph about one subject, and then randomly write the next paragraph about a different, unrelated subject, neither would you play one random phrase after another on the guitar. In an essay, you’d pick a subject, and then every word in that essay would be related, directly or indirectly, to that subject. So it is in improvisation. In improvisation, the “subject” is the song you’re improvising on. You decide what you want to say during this song, and then using notes, you create licks that relate to each other to form phrases, and then you create phrases that naturally follow from and relate to previous phrases. The best improvisers perform guitar solos that sound like a coherent collection of musical phrases – their solos almost sound “planned”. That’s because they have become fluent in the language of music, and they can improvise music the same way you might speak a language. You know your spoken language so well that you don’t even have to think about how to pronounce the words, or how to put them together to convey basic ideas. More complicated ideas might be harder to express, and require more studying and learning on your part. It’s exactly the same in music. You need to learn your scales, melodic patterns and arpeggios so well that you don’t have to think about how to play them, and you need to learn vocabulary so that you can put notes together to convey ideas. The more complicated the idea, the more vocabulary you need to know.

Just like you learned a spoken language by listening to and copying others, so too should you learn improvisation by listening to and copying others. Many guitarists start out concerned that if they learn what was played by others, they won’t develop their own musical voice and will end up sounding like someone else. But this is not necessarily true. Just as you have learned to speak with your own voice despite a lifetime of copying others, you will probably learn to play guitar with your own style as well. Your style will be a mixture of all the things you listen to and learn from, along with your own sense of taste and style. Many great innovators have brought something brand new to the table, but it is always rooted in the music of their past.

Learning the music of others is important in helping you develop your own vocabulary. Just as you wouldn’t speak by inventing your own words and your own language from nothing (which wouldn’t make sense to anyone but you), you don’t learn to play music by playing whatever you randomly want. At the same time, you probably don’t speak like a robot, and you don’t want to play music like a robot either. Learn the vocabulary of others and learn it well, and then add your own voice to it by changing it in ways that make sense to you. This way, you say musical things in a way that people are familiar with and understand, but said from your own perspective.

It’s a good idea to take into account the audience you intend to communicate with. Don’t play a jazz solo over a heavy metal song, or vice versa. Learning the vocabulary of a genre or a style is a little like learning different spoken dialects or accents. Fortunately, we guitarists have the advantage of being able to use the same notes (words) in all genres, we just have to use them in different ways to speak the dialect of that genre.

As you continue practicing and playing and improvising, you will come to learn and anticipate the sounds you’re going to make on your guitar, just like you have learned and can anticipate the words you’re going to speak before you say them. You will also learn style, and just as you speak with a wide range of tones of voice, you will learn to play with a wide variety of inflections and embellishments, such as slides, bends, and vibrato. You might start by improvising somewhat randomly, not exactly knowing what you’re saying (or maybe knowing what you want to say, but not knowing how to say it), but eventually you will start playing deliberate phrases, combining them together to make deliberate musical paragraphs. At that point you will know that you are speaking the language of music and you will communicate with it. This is the holy grail of musical accomplishment, and the good news is, any guitarist can learn how to do it. All it takes is time and practice.

Points to keep in mind while improvising:

  • Music is communication; improvisation is a special way of communicating.
  • Don’t play everything you know in every solo, just like you wouldn’t use every word you know in every speech.
  • Listen to yourself as you play – develop the idea you just played.
  • Does your playing contain too much tension, or too much release? Strive for balance to keep things interesting yet relatable.
  • We can remember what we just said. Can you remember what you just played?
  • Are you rambling? Would you ramble on with words the way you do with notes?
  • Every time you improvise, you have a chance to say something. Do you?
  • Your instrument is merely a means of delivering the thoughts of your mind, just like your mouth. Your mouth is for speaking your language (or singing!), and your instrument is for speaking music.
  • Make your melodic lines sing through your instrument.
  • Your goal: to reproduce instantaneously on your instrument what you hear in your mind.

The bottom line: the best way to learn how to speak is to actually speak, and the best way to learn how to improvise is to actually improvise. Put on your favorite songs or backing tracks and get busy improvising. Play licks, melodic patterns, color tones, triads, arpeggios, double stops…everything that you’ve learned. Learn new things all the time; there is a wealth of great improvisation out there, so much that you couldn’t possibly listen to it all, much less learn it all. Combine, improvise, phrase, experiment, make mistakes, try again, put your soul and feelings into it and say something meaningful with your music.

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