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

    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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