How do I learn to improvise music?

Improvising music is like giving a speech off the cuff. Before you can do it, you need to know some vocabulary and grammar. In music, the vocabulary is riffs, phrases, scales, sequences and other melodic building blocks. The grammar is music theory. It’s not necessary to learn either one formally, you can figure them out on your own through trial and error. But a good teacher can make the process a lot easier.

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Moody’s Mood For Love

My neighbor and friend Diéry Prudent is working on a documentary on the bebop saxophonist and flutist James Moody, best known for his 1949 recording “Moody’s Mood For Love.” It’s an improvised solo over the changes to “I’m In The Mood For Love,” one of those off-the-cuff jazz solos that came out so tightly structured as to stand on its own as a melody. For jazz listeners, “Moody’s Mood” has eclipsed the pleasant but corny tune it was based on. It supports my assertion that jazz arrangements of standards are analog remixes.

“Moody’s Mood” went on to inspire further analog remixing. In 1952, Eddie Jefferson wrote lyrics to Moody’s solo, and King Pleasure recorded them in 1954 with Blossom Dearie. Here’s Moody himself singing the Eddie Jefferson lyrics with Dizzy Gillespie – he sings Blossom Dearie’s part too:

Also, here’s a delightful performance of “Moody’s Mood” from the Cosby Show (sorry, no embedding.)

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Open-source music

Sample-based music isn’t stealing. It’s valuable and important. It shows the way toward a future for recorded music that’s more in continuity with music’s past. Recordings are cool and everything, but they encourage passivity. If I buy a recording, I can listen to it or dance to it, both fine activities, but what if I want to go further? What if I want to engage with it, converse with it, customize it or adapt it to my own needs? According to the law, I can’t. This flies in the face of the uncountable centuries of music practice that predate the invention of recordings. Before recordings, if you wanted to hear music, someone needed to play or sing it. To learn how to play or sing, you have to learn and interpret a ton of music by other people. The normal method for passing music along for nearly all of human history was by oral tradition, and a lot of adaptation and reinterpretation was an inevitable part of this transmission process.

In the modern world, most of the music you encounter is in recorded form. Adapting or customizing music is going to continue as it has for uncountable centuries. To adapt or customize a recording usually requires sampling. As it stands, the law is in the way. We need open-source music like we need open-source software.

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