The Processes of Creating Music in Jazz: Improvisation vs. Composition

When discussing the process of creating music, the first words that come to mind, specifically with the jazz genre and/or culture, are improvisation and composition. Both describe a process used to create original music. It is often stated within the jazz community that improvisation is “instant composition”, or “spontaneous composition” (Love 2017, 32). Though that holds true, I believe there are more factors that differentiate the two activities that are often glossed over. Edward Kennedy Ellington, or “Duke” Ellington, emerged in the jazz scene in the 1920’s and quickly gained a reputation as one of the big name bandleaders and composers of the genre. What better example than Ellington himself, to use as the framework for comparing improvisation and composition as means of creating music?

The most obvious, yet widely underemphasized, is the distinction that improvisation occurs in real time, where as composition does not. Essentially, improvisation is created and composed the same instance it is performed. As the soloist is creating a solo, it is cemented as part of the piece as a whole. Once a note or line is performed, the soloist cannot go back and ‘fix’ or ‘edit’ any part of it, as the listener has already digested what is occurring as it happens. The positive aspect of this is that it requires the improviser to adapt to the given situation, performance, and feel. This aspect also plays into the appeal of improvisation. Why is it generally well received by audience and laymen? Why do we idolize virtuosic/successful improvisers throughout history? It is in fact because we are aware of the fact that the musician is creating what they hear on the spot that makes it desirable. Composition, on the other hand, does not function in this manner. A composer can create motivic relationships, rework sections, and tweak a composition until it is precisely as they desire. In this sense, the process of composing does not exist in real time. The conception exists in an abstract space in the composers mind until it is fully realized for performance. It is further explained, “[the composer] has the leisure to manipulate musical materials in a manner involving any desired level of complexity, even taking days to calculate relationships of pitch and rhythm, both on a microscopic and macroscopic level” (Dobrian, 1991). The pros of not being bound by time (in the sense I am describing it here) are found in the relationships composers can create that otherwise would not be possible through improvisation. One such example can be seen in Ellington’s composition Black, Brown, and Beige. The complexity found in his use of motives and thematic structures would simply not have been possible to achieve had he taken a purely improvisational approach. This piece is one that critics often compare to classical repertoire despite the fact that Ellington “called the work [Black, Brown, and Beige] a tone parallel in order to avoid overt references and comparisons to the classical form of tone poem, implying an astute awareness of existing tensions between the two genres” (Williams 2012). This further shows Ellington was aware of where his music fell on the spectrum of ‘jazz vs. classical’.

It is worth noting that this trend that deals with time can be found within classical music’s history as well. It is well known that Bach, as well as Mozart, were extremely proficient keyboardists and improvisers. Figured bass in classical music is essentially a chart that tells the harpsichordist what notes to realize over the changes. Though both are important and provide their respective challenges and benefits, it is important to remember Bach wouldn’t have been able to improvise a six-voice fugue on the spot, nor would Ellington have been able to achieve success without utilizing the unique members of his band’s improvisational skills in his compositions. Without distinguishing the important differences, these two individual arts are somewhat diminished based on the over simplified definition often thrown their way.

Another differentiating characteristic is that composition is notated, where as improvisation is not. It is helpful if we first define the purpose that which notation serves music. Notation is the form of communication between composer and performer. It serves as the means for a composer to tell the performer how to play his/her piece. In this sense, Ellington’s sketches show exactly how he was thinking about his own pieces, as well as exactly what he wanted. Ellington’s compositions were often compared to that of European classical music. It was because of his frequent use of classical idioms, form, and other traditions that warranted these comparisons. Though Ellington would notate and compose specifically for members of his band, he never put a musician in a box. Ellington loved and thrived on the collaboration aspect of music. While yes, many of his pieces mirror classical tradition in the sense that he has written much of the details out and takes much influence from European tradition, he is also relying on the performers to create their own solos rich with their own unique personality and style. Excluding transcription, improvisation is not notated out, for it would detract from its purpose. Though it was not uncommon for a soloist to have several preconceived ideas and riffs to use, the “spontaneity allows for much more interesting lines that otherwise would not have been conceived under different circumstances” (Jacobson 2016).   

The spontaneity aspect of improvisation is directly related to the final distinction between the two. Improvisation is reactive and typically in a group setting, where as composition is not. Any jazz musician, when asked about improvisation, will usually describe it as a conversation, or connection the musicians have with each other. This especially becomes more relevant with the big band format, and soli sections rather than the focus on the individual. Both composer and improviser discovering a piece of music, however, the improviser shares this experience at the precise same time as the audience does, as well as the other members of the band. “The band controls where the music is going and, like any conversation, will adapt to the general flow” (Givan 2016). Composers discover a piece, but typically go through this process alone, fine tuning exactly where they see it going. The group dynamic has its benefits as it allows otherwise unconceivable moments to occur seemingly out of thin air, however, as stated earlier, the compositional aspect also has its merits. As the single deciding factor, the composer can choose without the possibility that another member may lead the piece in an unwanted direction.

Duke Ellington was one of the first, and most successful bandleaders to blur the line between composer and improviser in the genre of jazz. Both composition and improvisation are processes of creating music, and Ellington’s work displayed these two processes in ways that were not previously seen at that time. There will always be debate and discussion regarding the topic of how they compare, though I believe it is useful to consider both activities on opposite ends of one singular spectrum. Each have their advantages and disadvantages, and each method will produce totally different aural results. It degrades from them respectively when people discuss these two processes either as one single activity, or as two totally different entities. It is in fact more warranted to minimize the ‘gap’ between the two, and to additionally be conscience of each of the varying techniques and disciplines these two arts require. 


Dobrian, Chris. 1991. “Thoughts on Composition and Improvisation.” Claire Trevor School of the Arts, University of Caifornia, Irvine (accessed October 23, 2017).

Givan, Benjamin. 2016. "Rethinking Interaction in Jazz Improvisation." Music Theory Online 22, no. 3: 1-24. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 22, 2017).

Jacobson, Allen. 2016. "Jazz Improvisation: The Basics." Canadian Winds / Vents Canadiens 15, no. 1: 21-22. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 22, 2017).

Love, Stefan Caris. 2017. "An Ecological Description of Jazz Improvisation." Psychomusicology: Music, Mind & Brain 27, no. 1: 31-44. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 19, 2017).

Williams, Katherine. 2012. "Improvisation as Composition: Fixity of Form and Collaborative Composition in Duke Ellington's Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." Jazz Perspectives 6, no. 1/2: 223-246. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 22, 2017).