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A Brief History of Improvisation | Part 3 of the series

Before we can discuss a practical way to incorporate improvisation, let’s first trace the history of improvisation in Western classical music:

  • Early and Renaissance Music: Improvisation has its roots in early music traditions, before the invention of musical notation — when music was shared and passed on to the next generation by rote.
  • Baroque Period: Notation was introduced and standardized, yet, improvisation was highly valued.  It was routinely taught as a part of learning how to play an instrument. Performers routinely improvised preludes, fugues, and other pieces during performances.  Other improvisatory-like activities: figured bass and the addition of ornaments.
  • Classical Period: Composers began being more specific about notating exactly how they wished certain aspects of the piece to be played; i.e., cadenzas and ornaments.  Performers were commonly expected to be able to improvise pieces such as a sonata, theme and variations, or fantasy.
  • Romantic Period: Performers still commonly improvised pieces during performances.  Liszt, for example, enjoyed improvising pieces based upon themes suggested by the audience (written on scraps of paper before the performance).  Preluding also became popular: the practice of improvising an introductory piece to establish the key and set the mood.  However, improvisation began to decline as memorized performances became popular.  By the end of the nineteenth century, improvisation had all but disappeared from performances.
  • 20th Century: Improvisation (classical, non-jazz improvisation) has almost completely disappeared in Western music.  Composers are still very specific in notating exactly how they want their music to be performed – with the exception of aleatory passages.

So let’s boil that down into an even more brief summary:

  • Improvisation is a natural way of making music, as evident by early music traditions of sharing music by rote.
  • As musical notation became introduced and standardized, improvisation gradually declined in favor of accurate, literal renditions of music scores, usually performed by memory.
  • Although improvisation remains central in modern jazz traditions and in many world music traditions, improvisation has almost disappeared from Western classical music settings.

We must not ignore the fact that some modern music education methodologies do value and incorporate improvisation (the Orff methodology, for one).  But specifically in piano pedagogy, improvisation receives little attention.  It is infrequently mentioned in most piano methods series today (with a few exceptions).  And it is no longer a standard skill for pianists.

So, improvisation has virtually disappeared.  So what?  Is improvisation a valuable skill for pianists to develop?

To be continued in Part 4: The Value of Improvisation.

Series: Incorporating Improvisation into the Piano Lesson

  1. Creativity in the Piano Lesson – Introductory musings.
  2. Top 3 Obstacles when Teaching Improvisation
  3. A Brief History of Improvisation (now viewing)
  4. NEXT: The Value of Improvisation
  5. Incorporating Improvisation (coming soon!)
  6. 3 Benefits of Incorporating Improvisation (coming soon!)


1 thought on “A Brief History of Improvisation | Part 3 of the series”

  1. I have just come across your website and am particularly heartened to see your advocacy of the value of improvisation. Your summary of the history of keyboard improvisation over the centuries, and showing how our modern times have virtually abandoned Classical piano improvisation is most useful and apposite.

    This area is of particular interest of mine, and you may be interested in my website, which majors on organ but has piano content also. http://www.organimprovisation.net

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