What Does It Take to Improvise?

Entrainment – Autonomy – Mastery


Compared to conventional choral music, (group) improvised choral music alters one very important parameter of the whole system. It gives autonomy to each singer. Conventional choral music is predetermined by sheet music and rehearsed ideas, whereas improvised music is determined by the independent contributions of each singer. Each singer has been assigned autonomy over which, what and when to sing. It is this autonomy that becomes so wonderfully freeing – and the same autonomy so darn frightening! Therefore we need to address this autonomy and learn how to manage it. Apart from managing the new freedom we also need to learn how to navigate in the music – now that we don’t have a score or a conductor to refer to anymore.

Let’s leave the idea of autonomy for a little while and talk about two other things.


Entrainment is a universal concept appearing in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and more. It is defined as “as the tendency for two oscillating bodies to lock into phase so that they vibrate in harmony.” or “a synchronization of two or more rhythmic cycles”. Entrainment is quite evident in music, since most of our mental effort concerns synchronizing harmonic frequencies and rhythmic cycles in the music making. I therefore see entrainment as a foundation of the music making, the higher goal of the music making and a constant reference point harmonically, rhythmically and – well – spiritually or interpersonally. The more areas in which we get in sync – the more entrained we are. The more entrained we are – the closer we get to fulfilling the higher purpose of the music. Ta-daaa! Well – that is my definition anyways.

So, we have Autonomy and we have purpose. But to fulfill this we can’t leave out …


Everyone can improvise. Yes, they can! And improvisation can be considered an independent skill to be practiced. But improvisation is something you do with something – and in our case it is sound. Let us dare to restrict it even more – let us say we would like to include conventional musical parameters like tonality, puls, subdivisions, meters, chords etc in our tool box. Now, to qualify our improvisation we need qualified technical skills. We need technical skills like the back of our hand – otherwise the autonomous contributions will be 1) Out of alignment or simply out of context. 2)Thought out, and lacking the spontaneous quality.

Mastery of our voice (instrument) and some ear-training is required – at least to a minimum – but frankly speaking, it takes a lot of musical skill to make qualified improvised music. Funny thing though, the unique qualities of making stuff up here and now tends to transcendent anyways, and I have experienced some improvised amateur performances more interesting than same-level arranged performances. But no doubt, mastery of our technical skills and musicality is crucial.

This article is part of a workshop handout I wrote in November 2013. You can read the whole handout here:

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