Creating music is often divided into two broad categories: composing and improvising. Frequently, music teachers distinguish the two by maintaining that one is composing when notes are written down, and one is improvising when notes are performed spontaneously. According to this way of thinking, when, for example, Charlie Parker played a solo, he was improvising, but once his solo was transcribed, what he played became a product of composition. This, of course, is not a tenable position because the transcription is no less of a means for preserving the improvisation than an audio recording. Why would the performance remain an improvisation in its audio recorded version, but be changed into a composition in its written form? So the presence or absence of notation is not a legitimate delineator.
The difference between improvisation and composition relates to the process of creation, not the media of preservation. A Charlie Parker solo was improvisation when it was first played, and all recordings, audio or transcribed, are records of an improvisation. The difference between improvisation and composing can be understood if compared to the difference between conversation and writing. When two people are conversing, neither has planned what they will say ahead of time. They may have gotten together to talk about a particular subject, but the words and phrases spoken, the specific points made and responses to them are created out of previously learned linguistic vocabulary, and out of the imagination and thoughtful consideration of the two conversationalists. This is exactly what musical improvisation is; it is the declaring of musical ideas “about” a known “topic” using previously known “vocabulary.” In music, the “topic” is a specific song that forms the head and then the basis for variations during the solo. The discourse is concentrated on the “topic” of a known chord progression from which the improvisors have agreed not to stray too far, though limits may be tested. An improvisor knows the song and the chord changes, but doesn’t know exactly what will be played, and each time that song and those changes are used, the music will be different in significant ways, just as two conversations on the the same topic will not be identical, word for word.
So improvising is a matter of being a good conversationalists using musical notes instead of words. A good improvisor can recall patterns of notes and fit them into the chords over which they are playing, and can select patterns that bear a resemblance to outstanding characteristics of the song played. The improvisor can do this spontaneously, and is not concerned with editing choices of patterns and revisiting what was played to revise and edit until a completed musical work is completed. The improvisor is a musical orator who depends and trusts his or her musical instincts, and abilities to present a cohesive and flowing melodic line that stays on point, which is to say within the chords and melody of the original tune.
Composing shares some but not all of the traits of improvising. Composers, like improvisors, select familiar patterns of tones, combining them sequentially into desired melodies. At first effort, the composer writes down a musical idea that occurs to him or her spontaneously, and proceeds to work of that idea and others to build a complete musical work. But unlike the improvisor, the composer does not (stories of Mozart’s uncanny composing abilities not withstanding), write out an entire musical work in one uninterrupted stream, beginning to end, and then let it stand as the finished work. No, the composer, like the author of a book, goes back and reviews what has been written, revises, edits, searches, and at times struggles to find just the right notes to accomplish what is desired. It is this reconsidering and changing of the initial result of creative activity that most significantly distinguishes composing from improvising.
Students learning to compose not only must become accomplished at generating, selecting, and organizing musical ideas, they must also become good at editing and revising those organized ideas until a musical work takes shape, develops, and is finally made ready to present. These competencies of editing and revising are important for music composition students to learn, but are unnecessary for an improvisor, at least as far as presenting to an audience. One can argue that a student learning to improvise would evaluate their own improvisations and revise them with better voice leading or pitch selection, but this is really using the tools of composition to teach improvising. When the student is again improvising, he or she will again leave editing and revising behind, much like a golfer abandons alignment rods when playing in a tournament.
There is at least one more kind of creating in addition to improvising and composing; there is also arranging. Though the source material for an arrangement is provided by someone else, the arranger still must make many of the same creative decisions that a composer makes. These include instrumentation, registration, and difficulty level of the music for those who will be playing the music. On some occasions, an arranger may also need to decide what in meter to write the arrangement when the original meter is obscure and likely to create unnecessary difficulty to the expected performers. For example, an arranger might decide to notate a piece in three-four meter instead of three-eight. The sound of the music when played will not be altered, but the notation will be easier for young musicians to read. An arranger really needs to, as much as possible, get “inside the head” of the composer, and arrange the parts in such as way that the composer’s original intent is retained despite changes in instrumentation, meter, and even key.
It is important to understand the aspects of the various kinds of creating so that teachers instruct their students appropriately for each. Students are not well served when instruction in improvisation is to merely play whatever pops into their head on the one hand, or to meticulously cycle through a limited number of well-rehearsed arpeggios and scales on the other. If this approach were taken to teach people how to speak, everyone would sound a lot more robotic and a lot less interesting than they in fact do. Neither approach addresses generating musical ideas that are born out of familiar patterns. It is much more important to listen to good improvisors than to try to impose music theory onto ones playing and call it improvisation. Likewise, students are not well served when instruction in composing is to merely write a series of pitches that conform to good voice leading. It is much more important to listen to well composed music and study those scores than to try to impose music theory onto ones music writing and call it composing. Music is a product of sound and motion, so creating music must be the bringing forth of tones, rhythms and meters that are first audiated and then made ready to share with others by either writing them down so that they can be recreated by other musicians, or so that they can be instantly performed.