"Songwriting and the Creative Process"
An Internet Tutorial

Lesson 15. Improvisation, Discovery and Accident


Victor Borge does a wonderful stage routine with many musical jokes and pranks. One of them is based on playing a brief unrecognizable musical phrase. While the audience listens patiently, he plays a series of descending notes then two groups of staccato triplets. The phrases are not familiar and don't really seem like music.

At this point he gets a puzzled look on his face and turns the sheet music over and plays the first phrases of the William Tell Overture, and needless to say everyone recognizes the tune and laughs.

But what of the other "melody". Many people have used this upside down idea for inspiration and some have even settled on turning the music over as an improvement of their original melody.

There is some part of our awareness that will not hear notes as a melody until we play them with some conviction. It's as if we have to think things through, then come up with an experimental idea, write out the part, check it for correctness, and then learn it and play it and then ask ourselves if it works in a subjective way.

What if this complicated process was swept away and we were forced to compose "on the run" as we performed the piece for the first time? This question of improvisation in songwriting is a controversial one.

I really love to have a lot of time to write. If I could just sing and play the song for hours and hours, and make the smallest adjustments to melody and chord and lyric ideas, it would be the most comfortable way for me to work. But some people really like to break loose and let improvisation take a central role in composition.

Many stage performers have become so at home with thinking on their feet, that they can ask the audience for ideas and compose a song on the spot. It's a balance that each writer needs to find for himself.

In any case, there is a real thrill to having new music unfold out of some mysterious place. Even if we do a lot of editing later, there is nothing like going with the flow and catching what we can of it with our pen while it lasts.

This ability can be cultivated like any other aspect of songwriting. Even if we are not stage performers skilled on a lead instrument or used to jamming we can experience the same magic occurrence.

This is one man's description of the event.

"...In the first state, I am improvising consciously, forcing the music rather than becoming one with it. This improvisation, if we can call it that, is a matter of editing rather than creating; I am simply picking out riffs from past improvisations and placing them in some order that satisfies the requirements of the melodic line and the harmonic progression.

My movements in this state are studied and awkward. The music is stilted and joyless. "Then, if all goes well, there is a transformation of state.

It is not a gradual change, but a sudden shift, marked for me by an unmistakable physical sign: Whatever the room temperature, I feel a flush of perspiration on my forehead.

At this moment, the improvisation becomes effortless. I take no thought of what I am going to play; I simply allow my consciousness to stay in the time and place from which the music emerges." - George Leonard, (The Silent Pulse)

This effortless, inspired playing must be one of the things that is most satisfying for musicians performing on stage. But improvisation and inspiration are also very much a part of the writer's process.

It may be that Leonard's description is similar to what happens when we write, although, in songwriting, my experience is that the process occurs on several levels and at several different times. Some of it is "in the moment" as above, and much of it is a matter of assembling little inspirations and then editing and rewriting to create a balanced work which has in it the best of both the flash and the form.

This course is based on materials from the book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process" by Steve Gillette. Published by Sing Out! Press. Used by permission.

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