The Secret Behind Improvisation

Music students, music majors, musicians: Ever wonder why you have trouble with improvisation sometimes while at other times it’s a cakewalk?

In a recent blogpost, educator, performer, and producer Christian Howes talks about a conversation he had with Martin Norgaard, assistant professor of music education at Georgia State University. Norgaard, a string player, composer, and author of jazz string method books for Mel Bay Publications, focused his PhD in music and human learning (University of Texas, Austin) on improvisation.

Among the conclusions Howes and Norgaard share:

1) Improvisation is easier when you’re working with information you’ve already ingrained.

2) Improvising over unfamiliar  musical terrain (including chord progressions, meters, or stylistic frameworks) is nearly impossible, leading quickly to diminishing returns.

These situations correspond with two states of mind:

a) Creative mental state (while playing in familiar musical terrain): In this state of mind, you can train your attention and energy on your imagination, easily architecting melodic lines, rhythms, and gestures like a painter applies color and line to a canvas.

b) “Learning/drilling” mental state (when playing over unfamiliar terrain): In this state, you are creatively paralyzed, until you internalize or memorize the material which was giving you a hard time. After that you can engage the imagination and focus on being creative (but it could take a while to internalize that unfamiliar material!).

Norgaard goes on to urge musicians to “develop your creative playing in one part of the practice on an easy tune and work on unfamiliar tunes in the same practice. If you only work on the hard stuff you never get to develop stuff like developing a motive etc.”

To read Howes’ blog in full and to watch Howes and Norgaard talk about the mental processes behind improvisation and perform together, visit The Psychology of Improvisation.


  1. Reggie,

    Learning how to flow without aping what everybody else has done can be a really big challenge. I think one answer is to first be focused on getting your skills up, even if you initially sound derivative. Once you’ve improved on your craft and sharpened those skills your voice will often come out, but if you don’t first apprentice yourself to the greats, mimic their syllables, rhyme schemes and deliveries you can often be destined to accidentally jack their stuff anyway. So, by doing your homework and copying others styles more than you might like to, you are ironically less likely to fall into their style as a trap, since you’ll be aware of their techniques and tricks more intimately. Besides, if you copy the infrastructure and building blocks of somebody’s flow, but you still craft your own story inside of there you are still contributing to the form. I have done some work teaching Hip-Hop History, Hip-Hop Ensembles and Summer camps at McNally Smith College of Music. It’s a struggle to teach creativity and not just teach folks how to sound like Run, Rakim or other great MCs. But it’s a struggle worth facing because if we improve teaching methods, we can improve artistic output which is in everyone’s interest. Good luck and have a great day.



  2. Reggie

    Hi there my name is Reggie from South Africa, I’m an up coming artist, but I feel like I don’t want to sound like everybody. How do I improve my flow as a rapper and my way of writing?

    Thank you

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