Berklee Today

Pathways to Musical Freedom

Improvising beyond time and changes
by Professor Hal Crook

A great artist once observed that it takes five years of study and practice to learn how to paint (i.e., work with method and form), but it takes a lifetime of study and practice to paint like a child (i.e., free from method and form). The same could be said of free improvisation.

To achieve a functional degree of musical freedom as improvisers, we must first know and understand what it is we are trying to play free from. This means we must know and understand form (that is, time and changes) so that we can then forget about it-without forgetting it-while we play free. This is no simple task, and there is no shortcut to the goal.

Playing free does not mean that the player is free to play whatever and whenever he or she wants without considering the musical consequences. Nor does it imply that the music is

created arbitrarily and that the playing is carefree and easy.

  Musical Elements for Creating Order

Time (in tempo and meter, rubato)

Meter (even, odd)

Beat placement (center, behind, on top)

Dynamics (soft, loud)

Articulation (staccato, legato)

Shading (accents and ghost notes)

Phrases (short, long)

Rhythmic feel (even eighths, swing)

Rhythmic activity (sparse, dense)

Rhythmic content (syncopated, unsynco-

pated; polyrhythmic, floating)

Rhythmic pulse (walking, in 2, broken)

Melodic content (chord tones, passing tones,

tension notes)

Melodic curve (steps, leaps, repeated notes)

Melodic range (narrow, wide)

Melodic register (low, high)

Motive development (brief, extended)

Harmonic color (harmonic, nonharmonic)

Pacing (playing and resting)

Compositional direction (through composed,

motivic development)

Instrumentation within band (duos, trios)

Comping (supportive, interactive, tacit)

Voicings (harmonic; nonharmonic, tertian,

quartal, constant structure)

Effects (conventional, unconventional)

Organization (order, chaos)

To me, playing free means the player is free to play spontaneously improvised musical ideas that create balance, continuity, impact, and dimension, but without predetermined tempo, meter, rhythmic feel, chord progression, or song form to guide or limit the possibilities. At the same time, the player must interact with other players who have equal musical freedom, and together they must keep the music engaging from beginning to end. In other words, playing free means the player is free to do it all.

Musical improvisation evolved as an art form played within the boundaries of tempo, meter, and chord changes; hence, form is an integral part of its nature. Our understanding of the elements of form and the rules that govern them guides our improvising in free settings, giving us the option to create order or disorder. Without the ability to choose between these options, true musical freedom is not available to the player.

For accomplished players accustomed to improvising in conventional settings, improvising in a free context can be intimidating at first. But possessing the skills to improvise well in conventional settings prepares and qualifies us to deal with unconventional ones.

Ironically, mastery of time and changes prepares us to play free, but it can also limit and restrict the content of our melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic vocabulary. To combat this, we must practice using our musical vocabulary in more imaginative ways, such as in the production of continuity.

Continuity in improvising results from shaping the correct notes and rhythms into memorable motives (vocabulary) and then developing these motives into extended themes or stories. Extended continuity (i.e., building on a single theme for long periods) produces order, relatedness, and direction in the music, which balances-and thereby makes meaningful-those periods in which such features are deemphasized or absent.

The greater our competence in creating continuity while improvising accurately on form, the more equipped we will be to do so in free settings. Creating a sense of form within the formless is the key to making free improvisation comprehensible to listeners. In fact, the most convincing improvisers of free music can spontaneously generate all the definitive musical attributes of form, including continuity.

In practicing free improvisation, the player should consider the musical elements found in a quality musical performance on form. Such elements are the tools that enable us to create a sense of order in free settings through balance, tension/release, impact, and dimension. (See sidebar "Musical Elements for Creating Order," at right.)

To achieve balance, one should note that only the presence of a musical topic in performance makes its absence meaningful. For example, the presence of loud volume makes its absence (soft volume) meaningful. As with all complementary opposites, one aspect gives meaning to the other. The balance need not necessarily be equal to be effective.

Tension is created in improvised music by sustaining or repeating for a period of time a particular musical aspect (or combination of aspects) such as short phrases, triplets, or a motive. Usually the longer the aspect is sustained or repeated, the greater the impact of the tension (and its subsequent release) will be. Tension is released by ceasing the repetition and introducing different or contrasting material.

Impact describes the force with which a particular musical effect occurs in the improvisation. It results from a noticeable change in a musical element (e.g., from building and releasing tension). The degree of impact is affected by how the improviser controls the timing, placement, duration, and execution of the material.

Free on Form

Developing a Theme

Dimension refers to the degree of musical fullness achieved through the use of one or more aspects of a musical topic. For example, playing exclusively dense rhythms for a period of time results in one-dimensional control of rhythmic activity, whereas playing both sparse and dense rhythms results in multidimensional control. Multidimensional control balances one-dimensional control, adding to musical fullness.

To develop and refine skills for creating a sense of freedom while improvising on form, as well as for creating a sense of form while improvising in free settings, I have created exercises called performance scenarios. In this article, we'll look at two such scenarios. See musical scenarios (above).

The first performance scenario involves a soloist improvising on a standard song form with conventional accompaniment, then gradually "freeing up" on the form with the band following, one player at a time, and finally returning to the song form at the end of the solo.

After playing one chorus of the song's form on my "trom-o-tizer" (a trombone played through a harmonizer), I establish the time and changes of the form in the first two choruses of my solo (see example 1 on page 21, letters A and B).

In the third chorus (letter C), I leave the form and only occasionally refer back to it by resolving melody notes to the original chords. The pianist supports my nonharmonic melody line with nonharmonic chord voicings, allowing me to let go of the form more completely and explore free musical ideas and interactions.

The bassist and drummer mark the form clearly until the fourth chorus, when the drummer leaves the form and the bassist is the only player marking the form. Shortly thereafter we're all playing free from the song form, engaged in leading and following. I then recap the form at a faster tempo. The band picks up the time and changes of the form while I end my solo, cueing the next solo (for piano) in which the scenario is repeated.

The second scenario requires the soloist to create musical order within a free setting via extended development of a single motive. This can be done by improvising briefly in time-and-changes style, selecting thematic material as it arises naturally in the music and developing the selected theme throughout the solo (see musical example 2).

In this scenario, the accompanists support the solo with free comping. Other scenarios might include instructions for some or all of the accompanists to develop a theme, imitate the soloist's theme, play intermittently, or even rest.

After my solo, each player in the band follows suit, developing his solo from a single original theme. Notice how each soloist's theme leads the band in different musical directions and also that for the sake of balance and contrast, players often reduce their activity or lay out altogether immediately after soloing.

In this article I have presented an introduction to my methodology for practicing free improvisation. By using the known to navigate the unknown, I believe we can enhance our musical journey beyond time and changes, meet the challenge of free improvisation with greater confidence, and produce accessible musical results.

Trombonist Hal Crook is a professor in Berklee's Ensemble Department. This lesson was excerpted from his new book, Beyond Time and Changes: A Musician's Guide to Free Jazz Improvisation. Visit and