It has been my observation that the words creative and improvise are among the most misunderstood in the field of music education. Both of these words often given a connotation of being original or of being made for the first time from ideas that are vowel or heretofore unknown. Before discussing creative and improvisation as applied specifically to music, I will first discuss the words creative and original in order to set a necessary context for understanding improvisation.
Current understandings of creativity are weighted toward the process of creating something. That is, creativity is most apparent in the process of making something. The creative process leads to the making of something which is viewed as creative, and which is evidence that the process by which the thing was made was creative, but for a person to do something creative, the process is central, and the product is the result of the process; the thing made will be creative if the process has been creative.
A creative process typically includes divergent thinking whereby the thinker sees things and thinks of things in a way that is different from the norm. These creative ways of seeing lead the creative thinker to ask questions others are not as likely to think of, to find ways of seeking the answers to those questions others have not often used, and to find answers that most others have not discovered, because they have neither asked those questions, used that path of inquiry, or found those answers.
So far, I have avoided using the word originality. This is because creativity is often confused with originality, especially where musical improvisation is concerned. Whereas a creative idea may be original, there are many creative ideas that are not. The word original refers to something that is a first, that has not been copied or done before. Something that is original cannot be derived from something that already existed, or be an improvement on something, but must be wholly unique to its originator. If something has never been done before, or never existed before, and it is done or made for the first time, then it is original. Taken to its purest form, because we cannot make anything out of nothing, then nothing is truly original, but merely a creative use of something that already existed. Philosophers will debate what is or is not original, and a great deal of monetary gain is at stake when one claims one has made an idea or thing that is original.These distinctions are not important to my purpose of making clear the distinction between creative and original in musical improvisation.
What is important is that musical improvisation does not need to be, and is most often not original. The best improvisors employ motifs, themes, chord changes, and rhythms that they have already learned and often used before, and that are derived from the song on which they are improvising. The fact that the basic materials of improvisation are already known and are derivative disqualifies them from being original, but not from being creative. In fact, the divergent thinking necessary for organizing and presenting those motifs, themes, changes and rhythms into musical phrases points to the product of that thinking being creative. This does not preclude some element of originality being injected, such as a new timbre created by a novel method of sound production, but such originality is not necessary for the improvisation to still be creative. On the other hand, if an improvisor were to play in such a way that the music sounded random and disorganized, it might be highly original, but we would not be likely to describe its incomprehensibility as creative. Creative product has apparent usefulness and value, attributes that are not likely to be ascribed to incomprehensible noise, even when produced on a musical instrument (though it be used in an unmusical manner).
It is therefore a mistake to teach students improvisation by telling them to “make something up.” When we take this approach, we are erroneously teaching them that improvising is something that must produce original results, which we have seen is not the case. Instead, music teachers should show students how to divergently think about musical ideas they already know, organizing and using them in such a way that they produce a creative result. Creative results will always be musical, whereas, as we have seen, original ideas are not. This in turn makes apparent the necessity of teaching students enough music, and building up within their imaginations enough musical ideas for them to have sufficient raw materials from which they will be able to build improvisations, not out of nothing, but from those learned ideas.