Improvisation in Music

Abstract: This is an edited version of Improvisation, that was first issued in January 1995 to describe DonParagon's way of making music that differs in many respects from the traditional view that music follows a fixed set of rules. Instead of rules, there is optionality and Don's method shows simple starting points from which to improvise and to be musically creative without losing oneself in all this optionality.

A. Rhythms and Rhymes

When one wants to play tunes, either existing tunes or self-made ones, it makes sense to first determine the rhythms one wants to play the tunes in. Each tune can be played in a number of ways, in a number of rhythms; it makes sense to first try out a number of different rhythms, before focusing on the ones that one prefers.

In most rhythms, one can recognize major and minor beats. The major beats usually have more volume. Nevertheless, interesting effects can be created by doing the opposite, i.e. by giving the minor beats more volume. The choice is whether one wants to make the audience pay a lot of attention to following the rhythm or not. Generally, elaborate rhythms with sounds such as loud and rapid drums dominate in music that excites people into dancing, while percussion remains in the background in music that tries to create a smooth atmosphere to give a singer an ambience to express more complicated lyrics. In the latter case, percussion is usually deliberately slow, soft, simple and repetitive, in order to remain at that background.

If one is unsure about what rhythm to choose, it helps to take a look at the lyrics. Usually, articles such as 'the' and 'a' do not have much emphasis compared to nouns and verbs. Also, if a word has multiple syllables, there is likely to be a difference in 'accent' between them, e. g. the accent in the word delivery is mostly on the second syllable. Generally, such accents will co-incide with the major beats in the rhythm.

This shows the importance of lyrics for rhythm and music in general. It shows that things such as lyrics, rhythm and melody are interdependent, to the extent that they may be inseparable. For Don Paragon, there is little difference between speech and music. In speech, the tone of one's voice tends to go up at the end of a sentence, if there is a question-mark at the end. In musical terms, this means that the frequency of the tone gets higher. Frequencies will generally go down as the sentence progresses, if it is only a casual remark. But when one makes a decisive statement, the tone of the last word tends to go up slightly, with increased volume.

In a song, the intonation of the lyrics tends to coincide with points of emphasis in the melody. Lyrics often go hand in hand with tempo and volume; e.g. shouting can be a sign of anger or it can indicate a strong warning; whispering can convey a secret or a feeling of intimate friendship. To attract attention, a speaker may first build up tension to a climax that is to be followed by a sudden silence, then continue slowly, almost whispering the most important announcement for the greatest impact. In musical terms, volume will build up and then stop abruptly, after which tempo will pick up at a slower pace and at low volumes.

Thus, composing music can be intertwined with the writing of the lyrics and this is what Don Paragon encourages. That does not mean that composing and writing lyrics have to occur simultaneously. Making songs can occur in different ways; sometimes, the idea for a song can start with a catchy rhythm or with a sequence of chords; it may be that one only has a small part of the melody in one's head for days, or just a few words of text. In the end, all such parts are interdependent, i.e. each part may still change, as long as another part is not fixed. One may, e.g., use a specific rhythm in song and later add another slightly different rhythm to put more emphasis on certain parts of the lyrics, thus effectively using two rhythms in one song. Whichever parts of a song come up first in one's head, it makes sense to try out first which rhythms suit the song. Rhythms are quintessential to music, in fact, some music comprises of little more than rhythm. Because it is relatively easy to determine rhythm, it makes sense to - once the idea of a song takes shape - start figuring out more about rhythm.

B. More 'Patterns of Beats'

To pick a rhythm, one can knock on wood or clap along, first at the perceived major beats only, then also capturing minor beats in between the major ones, until one is satisfied with the resulting pattern. It makes sense to check whether such patterns can be used throughout the songs, as, generally, rhythms remain the same throughout the songs.

Rhythms can be entered into a sequencer or computer; subsequently, one can select percussion or other sounds for each of the beats in a sequence that repeats itself (hence the name sequencer). The problem may be what rhythm to use. To come up with rhythms that suit the song, it may help to first choose between two different rhythms only: a major beat follow by one minor beat and a major beat followed by two minor beats. It may help to walk around in the tempo of the music. If everytime that a major beat sounds, one ends up on the same foot, then one can safely use a rhythm in which each major beat is followed by one minor beat. Note, however, that each beat's period may itself be subdivided into beats, again using either a major beat follow by one minor beat or a major beat followed by two minor beats. Similarly, each beat can be part of a longer period consisting of multiple beats.

Once one has made up one's mind about rhythm (i.e. once one has worked out a pattern of beats that one feels covers the entire song and that is repeated throughout the song), one can go to the next stage, i.e. to work out the chords used in the song.

C. Choosing the Chords

In Don's method Improvisation, chords are formed by combining keys that relate to each other in simple ratios. This way, many simple melodies can be played using white keys only, accompanied only by three chords, i.e. the C-chord, the G-chord and the F-chord. These chords are formed by the respective combinations of the keys C-E-G, of G-B-D and of F-A-C, each of which corresponds to the simple ratio 4:5:6 (see Appendix A, the Sensation of Pitch).

To determine which chord of these three is the best one to start with, keep in mind that many tunes start and end with the same chord; for reasons of simplicity, Improvisation recommends to initially always use the C-chord at the end. So, to play a tune, first check if the start and end chords are the same and, if they are, use the C-chord to start with; in the less likely case that the start and end chords are not the same, take the C-chord as the end chord and try either the F-chord or G-chord to start with.

An easy way to start and play these three chords is to use the little finger of the left hand to press the C-key at the main beat of the C-chord as well at the main beat of the F-chord, while using the little finger of the left hand to press the B-key at the main beat of the G-chord. Subsequently, one can use other fingers of the left hand to simultaneously press the E- and G-keys at the other beats for the C-chord, the combined F- and A-keys for the F-chord and the combined D- and G-keys for the G-chord.

One should be prepared for a change in chord at every main beat in the rhythm. Initially, only use the C-chord, the G-chord and the F-chord. Only try others chords if none of these basic chords is appropriate. If unsure, don't use a specific chord, but use just a percussion sound and try and figure out more about the chord later.

D. Where to start the Melody

In instrumental tunes (where there is no singer) there often is one solo instrument that plays the melody, but this is not always the case. In songs, it is often easier to distinguish melody from rhythm, as the melody is sung, while the rhythm is created by instruments, clapping of hands, etc. Improvisation focuses on songs, because this makes it easier to distinguish melody. But Improvisation will initially try to play both melody and background sounds on a keyboard. On a keyboard, it is relatively easy to play both the melody and an accompanying rhythm, by using the left hand to create rhythm and the right hand to play the melody.

At first, try to find sequences of keystrokes that approximate the melody at the beginning and the end of the song; to make sure that these sequences match with respectively the begin and end chord, try and start these sequences at a number of different keys; to make sure that the sequences are in sync with the rhythm, match the timing of the little finger of the left hand both with the main beats in the rhythm and with the accents in the melody (and if applicable the lyrics). Then, make sure that these sequences match up with each other by filling in the rest of the melody. This can be done by singing the entire melody, while playing on the keyboard along with the voide during these sequences at the beginning and at the end. Before trying to play the entire song, make sure what keys to use at these begin- and end-sequences of keystrokes.

Initially, try to play the full melody using only white keys, especially at the major beats in the rhythm, since, especially at the major beats in the rhythm, the melody will tend to use the same keys as used in the chord of the moment. Only try a black key if none of the white keys seems appropriate. Occurrence of black keys at major beats in the rhythm often coincides with chords containing the same black keys (i.e. occurence in the melody of, say, the black key between the C and the D during a major beat in the rhythm, will tend to coicide with occurrence in the chord of a black key between the C and the D that is played lower down the keyboard).

E. Playing with both Hands

Improvisation encourages people to use both hands as soon as possible. Initially, one will use the left hand for accompaniment (i.e. rhythm plus chords) and the right hand for melody. This is recommended as the left hand may hold clues as to which keys to use at which moment by the right hand, while the right hand may give one ideas which will be the next chord to use with the left hand. As said before, rhythm, chords and melody are interdependent. The rhythm can give clues about a change in chords and when notes are to be plaved in the melody; if one is not strict about timing and rhythm, one loses such clues; furthermore, chords give clues which notes are to be played in the melody, while the melody in turn gives clues as to which chords to use.

When first trying to play an existing song, it makes sense to start by matching the rhythm with the accents in the lyrics, so that main beats and accents co-incide. It may be helpful to sing along while playing the melody with the right hand, not only to check whether one picks the right keys with the right hand, but also to determine where the accents are in the lyrics.

Don's Improvisation method comes with examples on cassettes as an introduction to various rhythms. The Rhythm & Rhyme cassette contains well-known nursery rhymes played in different rhythms. It also contains the Moonlight Sonate, a famous piece by Beethoven. As most people will have heard this work before, they will notice that Don plays it differently; unusual perhaps, yet rhythmic. Don calls this multi-synchronity, i.e. the simultaneous use of different rhythms.

For reasons of simplicity, Improvisation recommends that people initially use the left hand for rhythm and the right hand for melody. Once familiar with the song, one can use both hands for accompaniment, while singing the song. This is again why Improvisation focuses on keyboards, as they allow people to use one hand for one thing, while simultaneously using the other hand for something else, resulting, e.g., in a rhythm plus a melody or in two separate, simultaneous rhythms.

F. Changing Voice and Pitch

One may want to use other sounds, often referred to as "voices", instead of the cliche flute that plays only white keys at the recommended frequency ratio(see Appendix A, the Sensation of Pitch).

Concepts such as "voice" and pitch may be confusing, in that they may make it seem as if there is a set of mathematical rules behind music. But in the end, music does not follow rules, but is the result of the creative talent of musicians (see Appendix B, the ways Don plays). Improvisation only offers an initial set of guidelines to help people make a start with making and playing music; once people have familiarised themselves with a song, Improvisation encourages them to explore additional rhythms, tempos, "voices" and melodies.

G. Writing Lyrics for Songs

As an introduction to actively making music, Improvisation recommends that people start making songs at an early stage, including song lyrics. After all, the lyrics, melody, rhythm, tempo and chords are to a large extent interdependent. Some may wonder what they should write about. Improvisation contains suggestions in two ways. A recommendation to improvise is implied in the name Improvisation. Furthermore, Improvisation leaves many options open for a musician to explore, which goes hand in hand with optionality. Anyone who supports concepts such as improvisation and optionality, will have plenty to write about.

Appendix A. The Sensation of Pitch

Chords are often defined as combinations of tones that go together well. But what are tones? What tones go together better than others? Using electronic keyboards with sequencers has the advantage that one can record songtracks and still make many changes afterwards. In electronic music, the terms voices and pitch are more commonly used than tone or note. Each of these concepts may mean different things. A synthesizer allows one to vary pitch, widen frequency bands of sounds, add special effects and vary sounds in all kinds of other ways. Such manipulations may add further 'technical' concepts.

For reasons of simplicity, one may initially want to make the keyboard sound like an instrument with a clear sound (call it tone, pitch, whatever), such as a flute. The clearness of such sounds can technically be explained to result from narrow bands of frequencies that resonate due to the body-shape of strings, flutes, bottles, sea-shells, etc, in contrast with the waves at the beach that will sound at virtually all frequencies.

Many musical methods try to capture such a sensation of tone or pitch by using symbols such as notes that each stand for different tones. In many musical methods, seven notes are used starting with the letters A through to G, followed again by A at twice the frequency of the previous A, and so on. The white keys of electronic keyboards are generally regarded as multiple, subsequent sequences of these seven notes.

standard keyboard
How notes match keys on a standard keyboard such as the piano.

The problem with the use of notes is that it may give the perception that the pitch of each key is fixed, as if the frequencies at which such notes are fixed corresponds with some law of nature. But, as the above example of the sea-shell clearly shows, the sensation of pitch or tone results from the body-shape of the sea-shell. What one hears is the waves that on the beach sound at virtually all frequencies, but that in the sea-shell are reflected for specific tones only. An instrument produces a distinct tone or pitch, because the body-shape of the instrument reflects or even amplifies specific frequencies while muffling others.

Improvisation regards each key as tuneable. Just like most musical methods, Improvisation recommends to give seven subsequent white keys the names A through to B. But, in contrast to most musical methods, Improvisation likes to tune these keys in the harmonic ratio 40:45:48:54:60:64:72, continuing with the next sequence of seven white keys at 80, 90, etc, i.e. doubling the pitch of each key, while keeping the same ratio. Note that, as long as one keeps playing white keys only, one does not have to bother much which key one calls A to start the sequence with. Also, it does not matter much at which frequency a key sounds, as long as the relation between the keys stays at the above ratio. For greater awareness of traditional methods, it does make sense to refer to keys with the traditional names A through to G and use a frequency of 880Hz as a default for key A. But one should be aware that this is a choice and that each key is separately tuneable. Each key may be in fact be regarded as two or more different keys, each of which has a different pitch and each of which is played on a different keyboard.

In the jargon of electronic keyboards, the concepts pitch and voice are often used. Pitch usually refers only to the specific, fundamental frequency value, while a voice is the whole sound, containing many different frequencies. Each key on the keyboard normally produces a sound that has a different pitch. Each such sound contains a fundamental frequency (i.e. that gives it its pitch) and multiples of that frequency, called harmonics. The relative volumes of each of these harmonics determines the voice of a sound.

Both the type of voice and its pitch can be changed. Even a 'simple' sound such as the 'flute sound' contains a number of harmonics that relate to each other in simple frequency ratios. By changing the relative volume of each of these harmonics, one creates a different type of flute, i.e. one changes the voice.

The pitch at which such a flute appears to sound can also be changed; if one shifts its pitch, say, seven notes higher, one effectively doubles the entire set of harmonics in frequency, but the way the harmonics relate to each other stays the same (as each of them has doubled). Transposing a voice means making a voice sound higher or lower, while keeping the type of voice the same. After all, the type of voice is determined not by its pitch, but by its composition of harmonics or rather their respective loudness.

Chords essentially are voices that sound together well, because their harmonics have common frequencies. Generally, voices will sound harmonious the more they share lower harmonics.

The "equal temperature" way of tuning the piano allows simple transpositions. But these days, keyboards allow one to record and then transpose voices or even entire songs (i.e. sequences of voices) at will. Many keyboards also have alternative tuning systems. Thus, one can make a sequence using, say, a harmonic tuning system and using only the chords C, F and G; later, one can then multiply or divide all frequencies by a constant, while leaving the frequency ratios within and between voices intact. Don's song Optionality (B) contains notes (or rather voices) that sound identical on a piano, but that can each be given a different pitch on a synthesizer. The picture below shows how one can calculate (in one case up to three) different pitches for five notes that sound the same on the piano.

keys versus pitch
Frequencies for the keys B, F, D, G and the black key in between F and G can each be calculated in different ways, given that the left key A has a frequency of 880Hz.

Appendix B. The ways Don plays

One may get the impression that artificially generated sounds and patterns are rather mathematical and sterile. Some musical systems try to get around this problem by using samples of live music as sound sources for the sequencer; they may also use effects, random tempo variations and widened pitch bands to make the 'electronic' sound appear more natural.

DonParagon's approach to this problem is to avoid putting sounds into a box. Being boxed into a limited set of sounds is in conflict with Don's preference to improvise.

As discussed in the above Appendix, The Sensation of Pitch, more harmonious frequency ratios are preferable than the equal tempered ratios available on a standard keyboard. Although many compositions will start on a standard keyboard (either an electronic keyboard or piano), once the idea of a composition takes shape one can try and calculate more harmonious frequency ratios for the notes in the chords and in the melody. Theoretically, one can calculate 'perfect', or exact pitch positions for notes and subsequently work out a 'perfect' pitch band centred around these positions.

The problem with many synthesizers is that they sound sterile, even erie. This is partly a technical problem. The sound is typically created from a narrow tone. By using sampled sounds, one can overcome this problem to some extent. But also, most synthesizers simply do not allow for sufficient control over harmonics and pitch to make more harmonious sounds and to make those sounds go well together in a musical sense. Instead, they use standards such as MIDI. If one wants to calculate not merely the frequecies for a few fixed pitch postitions, but instead for all the positions on frequency glides and vibrations, the amount of calculations becomes mind-boggling. One step forward in this regard is the Kawai K5000 range of synthesizers and workstations that give more control over individual harmonics within a voice through what Kawai calls Advanced Additive technology. More advanced even are software solutions such as "Auto-tune" that allow one to tune a specific note in accordance with a preferred scale.

But Don also has some philosophical problems with the approach behind most electronic music. Don rejects the concept of a 'perfect' pitch around which all sounds in a song can be calculated and generated electronically. When two people sing together, two independent voices can be heard. These two voices may influence each other, but they will retain some independence from each other. Philosophically, they can never sing at exactly identical frequencies. In most electronic music, all sounds are derived from standard MIDI-frequencies and sounds are synchronized on one, single rhythm. Calculating more harmonious frequencies may be an improvement, but if all these calculations are based on a single frequency to start with, the music will still express a singularity that Don rejects.

In many songs, e.g., Don sings his lyrics and accompanies himself on the piano. Don is well aware of the harmonious limitations of the piano, but in many cases this does not matter much, as Don uses the piano almost as a percussion instrument. An example is the song Improvisation Time, that contains the following lyrics: I don't care much for melody; I don't care much for symphony; all I need is some rhythm and rhyme.

Don also likes to introduce multiple rhythms; most musicians insist on a single rhythm, e.g. the left hand and the right hand of many pianists will hit the keys simultaneously, especially at major beats; by contrast, multi-synchronity features in many of Don's songs, e.g. at many of the major beats Don's left hand will hit the keys slightly earlier than the right hand.

It is as if Don's left and right hand are different persons, each playing together, but in a distincly independent way. Furthermore, it is as if Don's voice adds a third person. All this makes Don's music 'alive', compared to most electronic music.

Finally, Don never regards a song as finished, but will keep on seeking to make improvements. For Don, improvisation in music means that a song can never be captured in one 'perfect' way, whether in notes or other standardized symbols or in mathematical formulas. Instead, a song can be expressed in many ways, each of which is as capable of expressing the song as well as the other.

Wave Keyboard
Don's trademark "Wave Keyboard" symbolizes the way Don shapes the standard keyboard.

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