Arguably, we are all masters of our first language(s). In many domains, improvisation is the showcase of ultimate mastery, no? Can we go the other way around and say that when using language we are constantly improvising? The author of this blog post certainly found this idea far-fetched at first. Here, we try to unpack the commonalities between musical improvisation and every-day speaking. Read along and learn what Johann Sebastian Bach, Anthony Hopkins, and Michael Jordan have in common.

KristijanPortrait2In many domains, improvisation is the showcase of ultimate mastery. Johann Sebastian Bach famously improvised the fugues in The Musical Offering on the spot when Frederick II of Prussia handed him the intricate leading theme [1]. Rutger Hauer rewrote parts of the “Tears in rain” monologue from the 1982 sci-fi cult Blade Runner just the night before the shooting. In the iconic The Silence of the Lambs, the creepy hissing sound by Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in one of the scenes between Dr. Lecter and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) was unscripted. And this performance earned Hopkins the Academy Award for Best Actor! Examples of mastery, without a doubt.

No wonder, then, that as a budding guitarist, I once ended up participating in a (rather arcane) interactive round table on improvisation. After silently sitting for a good half an hour, shyly avoiding eye contact with other participants, one of them turned point blank at me and asked: “What do you think improvisation is?” … Acting in the absence of a plan. That was my answer. My interlocutor was not too impressed by this rather non-elaborate perspective on the beloved topic. He retorted: “Language is constant improvisation—even though in most situations, you know what you want to say!” You have a plan. I was baffled by this idea. It certainly did not occur to me that I could see myself as improviser. But the words stayed with me. And these words bring me to this blog post. Might we all be expert improvisers in language after all?

Language and music

It isn’t news to start seeking the parallels between our speaking and musical mental abilities. For example, cognitive psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists alike have been wondering for decades about formal commonalities and differences between the two activities, and whether or not there are common parts of the brain engaged in speaking and music-making [2]. However, in this post we are not interested in empirical work. Let’s dabble with ideas instead. Let’s see if we can unpack the thought that language is constant improvisation by breaking down three core elements of musical improvisation! *

19° International Jazz Festival of Punta del Este |
International Jazz Festival of Punta del Este

Music as language

To begin with, works on musical improvisation abound with references, metaphors and analogies to language and conversation. Michael Steinel, musician and the author of Building a jazz vocabulary, is explicit on this:

“Jazz is a language, a very distinct musical language and like any language, it has its own vocabulary, alphabet, rules of grammar, conventions of use, and common themes.” [3].

Musical expression requires its own vocabulary just like, for example, the local language at your holiday destination. A guitarist playing with a drummer, who starts a tune with a funk beat, is better off if she can respond with a catchy funk phrase. To be able to improvise musically, you need to build your arsenal of musical expressions and remember the contexts in which to (re)use them. But, how do you do it? …

Learning by imitating and doing

… By imitating and conversing with the greats that came before you. Jazz musicians will spend hours listening and transcribing the works of their favorite players. Just as you can sharpen and diversify your sense of a language by reading works of literary art, for example. In fact, the best creative minds in literature typically learn their craft by consuming and meticulously studying the works of other writers [4]. Another, perhaps the most important way, of learning to speak music is to just go out and do it. Jazz improvisers like to hang out in late night jam sessions where they can play familiar tunes, listen to each other and experiment. In such a way, they are gaining experience. Language is learned, in an important part, through experience and direct exposure as well. You weren’t taught your first tongue in a classroom from the start. Instead, you learned it through imitating and conversing with the greats around you; family, relatives, friends. There is an entire subfield of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience called “statistical learning” which is dedicated to the study of how our neural and cognitive systems learn from the patterns and experience in the environment [5].

Real-time and effortless

One of the more obvious aspects of improvisation is that it is instantaneous and feels effortless. Any form of mastery is by definition effortless and to a master improviser, playing feels easy [6]. On top of that, this frictionless performance must always happen right now, in the present moment. Consider another example of improvised mastery. Michael Jordan, a six-time NBA champion, comments on his demonstrated ability to score decisive points in the final seconds of the game: “I practice as if I am playing in a game, so […] when you get to that moment, you don’t have to think. Instinctively things happen.” [7].

Language can also be thought of as an (over)learned routine that we execute effortlessly on a daily basis without consciously thinking about it. Stephen Nachmanovitch, the author of Free play: Improvisation in life and art puts it as follows:

“Every conversation is a form of jazz. The activity of instantaneous creation is as ordinary to us as breathing.” [8].

This is not to say that when speaking or improvising we are idle. There are certainly a lot of things going on “under the hood” when we speak or improvise. The brain, after all, is not the cheapest organ when it comes to energy consumption [9]. The important point here, however, is that we are not consciously aware of any subroutines that make it happen. Effort is not experienced.

Coming full circle

So, in fact, even though my interlocutor did not manage to bring the point home to me at the time, he was well entitled to call the use of language a constant improvisation. We are all improvising. With a plan. Think about it the next time you strike a conversation. You are acting in the moment, you react to the here and now while following the rules and constraints (most of the time), but also relying on patterns of behavior known from experience. But maybe this is all too trivial and we have just come full circle? Surely, we could have started at the other end and said improvisation is just endless conversation?

Jazz Silhouette


*I’m drawing most examples from authors in the tradition of jazz. Needless to say, improvisation was and is a core part (in different shapes) of many non-jazz, non-Western musical traditions. See Improvisation: its nature and practice in music by Derek Bailey [10].

Feature Image: Adolph von MenzelConcert for flute with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci

Further reading

[1]        D. R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid, 20th anniversary ed. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

[2]        A. D. Patel, Music, language, and the brain, First edition. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.

[3]        M. Steinel, Building a jazz vocabulary: A resource for learning jazz improvisation. Hal Leonard, 1995.

[4]        S. Pinker, The sense of style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. London: Penguin Books, 2015.

[5]        A. Schapiro and N. Turk-Browne, “Statistical learning,” in Brain Mapping, Elsevier, 2015, pp. 501–506.

[6]        K. Werner, Effortless mastery: liberating the master musician within. New Albany, Ind: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, 1996.

[7]        One on one. NBA TV, 2013.

[8]        S. Nachmanovitch, Free play: improvisation in life and art. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 2010.

[9]        S. S. Kety, “The general metabolism of the brain in vivo,” in Metabolism of the Nervous System, Elsevier, 1957, pp. 221–237.

[10]      D. Bailey, Improvisation: its nature and practice in music. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993.