J.S. Bach, while he was alive, was little known as a composer, and his works were criticized for being dense and old-fashioned — but he was renowned as the greatest improviser on the organ in Europe. A famous French organist once came to town to compete against him, and, hearing him improvise while warming up, promptly left town. Bach put improvisation skills at the center of his teaching. Most of his instructional manuals are how-to books in improvisation. He often wrote out several different versions of his most popular pieces, such as the inventions, to show how a student might improvise on the structure.

Handel wrote one treatise on performance – and half of it was devoted to improvising dances and fugues.

Mozart was most famous in his day, according to scholars, “first as an improviser, then as a composer, then as a pianist”. In a famous piano competition in front of the Pope, Mozart and Clementi not only had to improvise in the final round, they had to improvise pieces together.Beethoven became famous in Vienna not as a composer but as an “astounding” improviser. It was a full ten years that he was famous as an improviser in Vienna before he started to become well-known for his compositions, and he improvised publicly until the end of his life.Beethoven wanted nothing more than to study with Mozart, and they met a total of one time, at a party. This was Beethoven’s one chance to impress Mozart, to show everything he knew – and to do it, Beethoven asked Mozart to give him themes to improvise on. When he was done Mozart turned to his colleague Attwood and said, “Someday, he will give you something to talk about.”

Schubert was almost completely unknown as a composer in his day – but he was renowned as an improviser, playing in taverns all night improvising waltzes, dances, character pieces, and drinking songs.

Chopin generated all the compositional material for his pieces in improvisation. Though he performed publicly, he let only a small circle of select friends hear him improvise, including his close friend, the writer George Sand, who felt that Chopin’s compositions were “but a pale shadow of his improvisations,” a remark echoed by others who heard him.

When Liszt came to towns to give a path-breaking solo piano recital, which he invented, he immediately went to the town’s opera house to see what works were being performed by the opera and ballet. He always closed his concerts with virtuoso improvisations on the themes of the local operas and ballets currently being shown.

rahms made money as a child playing the piano in bars, improvising and playing by ear waltzes and dances that were in Viennese fashion. He came to public prominence when Schumann attended a performance he gave of a Beethoven violin sonata – the piano was mis-tuned so to match the violinist, Brahms had to play the piece by ear in a different key. Schumann immediately sought him out.

Debussy saw improvisation as his main creative source, claiming that his harmonic innovations came from “following the law of pleasure of the ear”. In particular Debussy, with his love of exotic sonority, loved to improvise on out of tune pianos, letting the particular sonorities move him in innovative ways.


I think this list of facts speaks for itself. Music was once thought of differently. Improvisation lay at the center of the conception of what it meant to be a musician. Improvisation, however, doesn’t leave the strong archaeological records that composition does, so to the modern mind the vitality of improvisation has been drained out of our historical conception of what music has been. Our conception of how composers thought and worked has been flipped on its head. Our understanding of the evolution of western music is terminally distorted. I hope attention will be paid by future music scholars to the possibility of a functional-improvisation-centered musical culture. It could result in a revolution in terms of how we see our musical past and future.


63 Responses to “Facts About Improvisation”

  1. Ananda Bena-Weber Says:

    Barnhill!! You are my hero! I LOVE what you wrote here! I wish there were more such as you in the world!! I want to join your revolution. I am classically trained (not as a musician, so I don’t know if it really helps), but I’ll carry a spear and lead the charge on Avery Fisher Hall!

  2. Robert Hanke Says:

    I am not very sophisticated when it comes to music theory, but I like the ideas you express here. After all, improvisation is interesting for its being a very active, creative process requiring – I believe – much skill in mastering the instrument, the musical field one attempts to work in, and – finally – oneself. As I once played the guitar, my teacher tought me to improvise blues and jazz. The idea of improvising classical music is new and exciting to me. It is somewhat a commonplace that classical music is all about repeating the great work of previous composers. While this is certainly of great value, the notion of classical improvisation has the potential to open up a completely new realm of artistic experience.

    Do you know whether Rachmaninov used to do improvisations? This question comes to my mind, because he is a composer I really admire. If improvisation is an essential part of composition as your text suggest, then certainly every great composer uses improvisation.

  3. ericbarnhill Says:

    Hi Robert,

    We have abundant evidence that Rachmaninoff had a full improvisational facility, not least of which is that he sometimes deviated from the harmonies in his printed scores when he recorded his own works! This even occurred during some recordings of his piano concertos, to the consternation of the conductor and engineer. I wish I had more specific details on that incident for you off the top of my head but I don’t.

    Rachmaninoff is perhaps more known for his unorthodox practicing style, in which he practiced so incredibly slowly that other concert pianists would gather around his practice room and try to guess what he was practicing! So he was truly an artist of both great freedom and great deliberation. I think the improvisation stories are less well circulated because contemporary classical music culture, with its absence of improvisational training, has trouble “digesting” it, but I view them as equally important.

  4. felix Says:

    Can you do me a favor and teach me how to improvise on the keyboard . I PLAY FOR MY CHURCH CHOIR

  5. ericbarnhill Says:

    I most definitely can – but if you’re in New York, not Amsterdam.

  6. Argancel Says:

    Hi everybody,

    I found this article so refreshing!
    I am also convinced improvisation is also the essence of a real artist. Perhaps compositors quoted here are not well known as improvisators because we have only stories of it and not recordings.
    To all who wish to learn how to improvise, here is a special gift for you:
    There are free lessons there of a gifted man:Jan Krammer who devoted much of his retired time in teaching improvisation to groups of students. And fortunately wrote down all his advices.
    This is how I started to really improve my improvisation skills. This man is really my mentor.
    I am actually responsible for the translation in French.

    Also, if people are searching for improvisation websites, just search in my bookmarks on line:

    here is my blog: argancel.blogspot.com
    and here is my email: a.filipiak@gmail.com
    (I would be pleased to get some feedback)

  7. It is August 2006 and I just happedn to come on this most interesting discussion about Improvisation. Do take a look at my work on Improv. as a Lost Art, which you can find at . I hope your Daily Improv. Site is stil active because there is lost more to say.

    Best wishes,
    Bill Harris
    Prof Em Middlebury College
    And be sure to watch the ISIM site where new things are just not being planned for Dec. 06.

  8. error last post: About ISIM, where new things are NOW being planned.

  9. cliff brock Says:

    i have been an improviser of “classical” music since i was a child and was just wondering if there were competitions for young people in this art? improvisation has been a great means of expression for me and so much more exciting than playing preconceived music.

  10. […] There is an excellent article on the development of classical improvising. This is not a new phenomenon it has been around since the beginning of western music – J.S Bach […]

  11. alwin Says:

    Yeah!!!!!! Finally.
    I am a professional classical musician, and have been telling people this for 10 some years..

    I hope for the sake of creativity, that people finally get the hint.

    Thank for expressing that!

  12. This is a nice list of composers who improvised classically. Inspiring actually, I am bookmarking it for reading again and again. I would never claim to such a name myself, but I am driven to ‘follow the pleasure of the ear’ through improvising. Please check out my classical improvisations at http://www.dark-classical-music.com. I update the list of MP3’s for free download multiple times per week so consider subscribing to my RSS feed.

    Have a nice day!

    Ryan Arnfinson

  13. Rainer Wagner Says:

    come on: “the french organist …promptly left town on the next train”?
    this must be in the 1740’s or earlier. and the first trains startet in the 1840’s…

  14. ericbarnhill Says:

    Ouch, good point. And yet I am fairly sure that’s what I read, but I will have to go back to my sources when I have time…which is (sigh) probably July.

  15. Thats a relief – I improvise all my pieces into existence – I was starting to think I was doing it wrong 🙂

  16. Will Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I recently came across the idea of Baroque improvisation on guitar thanks to the late Ted Greene. A former student had recorded some lessons with him explaining how he could move through chord progressions, modulate to other keys and adding melodic patterns in the various voices.

    Thanks to all who posted here in the comments as well as I’m trying to find more on this topic and teach a step by step approach. I’m even thinking of a PhD in order to simplify and research this process in more detail.

  17. Phil Hanson Says:

    Just came across this page, very interesting stuff. I am a classically trained trumpet player and have been playing for the past 30 years. I played and studied primarily “classical” music all that time until a year ago when I got into Jazz, primarily as a way to express myself musically through improvisation. My personal passion is composition through improvisation, which I have been drawn to after years of playing from musical scores, in brass bands and orchestras, where you can only play what is on the score! The concept of classical improvisation sounds very exciting, and definitely one I now intend to study more of, and also play more of.

    For anyone who is interested there is a 30 second attempt at this is on my website, go to the player on the home page and listen to “Flourish”, totally improvised while practicing one day.

    Are there any good books you can recommend on bach, beethoven etc as improvisers?

    Also, does anyone know if any “classical” orchestras specialising in improvisation exist in the UK??

  18. Steele Ford Says:

    Thank you so much. I have been a composer and musician for almost 40 years. My first degree is in Music Composition. I compose whatever I choose from classical to jazz to rock to country; however I tend toward larger works. I play jazz when I can and anything else for fun. I am also an electronic engineer. (Go figure but I make a decent living at it) My style is only like me. I never imitated anyone else so for better or worse I only sound like myself.
    Recently, I was at an art festival and heard a high school big band play. The trumpet player did a great job of playing note for note the Harry James solo written in as the ‘suggested’ solo. I later asked a band director friend why and he said, “If you want to win at the contests, you play the written solos.”
    I replied, “So there is no improv at all.”
    He said, “Not if you want to win.”
    “So,” I said, “jazz band is now the same as concert band. No wonder we have kids growing up who have no critical thinking skills and are not capable of original thought.”
    I have trouble believing jazz bands are judged when there is no improvisation. I would also like to have classical musicians improvise. Classical Music College students did improvise in the late 1960’s and in the 1970’s at the college I attended. I would hope they still do, somehow I doubt it. When my son was in middle school we were listening to the radio and yet another remake of an old rock tune began to play. He asked, “Doesn’t anyone have any angst anymore?”

  19. William Says:

    I am not terribly familiar with your site yet, but I like what you say in your original post to this thread.

    I was wondering, however, if you might be able to provide a little more information on some of the things you mention. For instance, you say:

    “Bach put improvisation skills at the center of his teaching. Most of his instructional manuals are how-to books in improvisation.”


    “Handel wrote one treatise on performance – and half of it was devoted to improvising dances and fugues.”

    Is it possible to get the names of those books, so I could do further reading on them? Most of the other composers you mention would also be interesting to learn from, if they have how-to books on classical or baroque improvisation.



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  22. Nikolaj Says:

    As far as I know CNSMDP in Paris (“National Superior Conservatory of Paris for Music and Dance) and other schools also, have a “functional-improvisation-centered musical culture”. I speak mostly about organists… Daniel Roth, for instance is a great improvisor at the organ of St. Sulpice, and it is also French tradition to improvise during the masses too.

  23. […] back much further.  A favorite article that I always read to new students is “Facts about Improvisation”  by Eric Barnhill.  The article brings to light the fact that many, if not all, of the […]

  24. rob ellis Says:

    I’ve been improvising since age 5. I’m now in my fifties..it’s a life long process..check out beethoven improv Rob Ellis on utube if you want to hear some of my improvisations…..

  25. Paul Busby Says:

    Very interesting article. I have some questions. Apart from the cadenzas in concertos, did the composers you mention every write pieces in which a number of musicians could improvise? If so, what has happened to them? I would also like to know when exactly did improvisation fall out of favour in classical music, and why? If improvisation had continued, might jazz have evolved in Europe rather than in America but without the input of Arican rhythms? Intriguing thought.

    • Alexov Says:

      Interesting thought, Paul, about the evolution of jazz! But I have to question the “facts” stated by Eric Barnhill. Some have already noted inaccuracies and when he says Beethoven improvised publicly until the end of his life, well, that is just wrong wrong wrong…

      I hate it when some “facts” – that are incorrect – in an article make you wonder about the accuracy of all the other “facts”. Is the author either simply wrong or, worse, an outright liar?

  26. […] then after each of the sections adding his own improvised variation on it. Since Bach himself was a famed improviser, this isn’t as strange an idea as it might first seem. On Wednesday, he’s playing a […]

  27. Adyta Vc Says:

    Me ha encantado el articulo, muy interesante. Vivo en España ,,,y estoy realizando una tesis de Pedagogia sobre La improvisación musical y su aplicación para el piano a través de diferentes métodos. Cualquier dato de interés que me pueda ayudar se los agradeceré.

  28. Evan Says:

    Improvisation is the breath of any style of music, rock and roll bands get to gether to improv, jazz musicians do so too and all music comes from ‘trying’ our ideas, except it seems classical musical with it’s preservation afficionados, if there was more improvising perhaps it would still be mainstream today.

  29. thanks for this now for all of you who want to improvise start connecting between OLD and NEW idioms play freely FROM CAVEMAN ROMPS to AVANT GARDE if you wish and just improvise on a set creation of harmonies like Bach’s two part Inventions, using the harmonic foundation and let your ya ya’s go on the production of melodic arpeggios and sequential expressionism. Every Jazz standard can be the base or even a Beethoven Sonata. All you need is to be able to recognize the chords and melodic direction. I do plenty of improvising on Chopin and for freaky directions try Schoenberg for a new harmonic vocabulary

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  31. Alexov Says:

    Mr Barnhill, someone called Cars has left a comment here that is 100% spam. Please consider deleting it entirely.

  32. […] moments are not just limited to jazz.  Classical music has a long history of improvisation stretching all the way back to Bach and beyond. The French musical impressionist Claude Debussy […]

  33. bruno benedetto Says:

    As a matter of fact classical improvisation still is a form of art in its own right within the world of classical music.

    True it is not often heard of by the greatest musicians, which does not mean at all the cannot improvise. Still, music making in its highest regard means simply creating music, and not recreating cliches. Thus, the greatest musicians of our time do not dare improvise in public, because it would be a pale rendering of art compared to playing a great piece by a great composer.

    There is still another complex view of the classical improvisation problem. The greatest musicians of our time, by which I mean to refer to interpreters of music by the greatest composers, are not the only greatest musicians of our time.

    There is another category of lesser known classical musicians: improvisers (such as orgue improvisers) and modern composers. Any of such musicians is a great improviser, capable of playing whatever their imagination creates, or whatever their ear would hear. These categories of modern musicians are not often heard of because of lack of media exposure, due to massive lack of interest in modern music by the greater public.

    Instead we are led to believe that the only improvisers in town are jazz players, which by no means is true. Yet, one has but to see an organist, such as David Roth and others, improvise on a church hymn, to see how musically complex, and technically difficult to play. this high sort of improvised music is.

  34. Phil Hanson Says:

    Totally agree with your comments. I play trumpet and everything I do is 100% improvised. Whilst I play jazz rather than classical, I am a huge admirer and have a lot of respect for classical improvisers. I agree with your comment that there is a large movement of unknown talent who don’t get the headlines because they improvise and don’t play tunes people know. I would love to see more festivals and gigs promoting pure improv musicians, regardless of whether they are classical or jazz. Especially classical improv musicians who I would pay good money to come and see. I’d also like to try and mix my own free-jazz improv with a classical improv musician on stage or in a studio. It would be very interesting to see and hear the end results.

  35. Fazel Says:

    I love improvising, love to meet other’s who do as well 🙂

  36. Bruno Benedetto Says:

    You do not have to pay lots of money to hear a great improviser in action. Simply go to Paris, and pay visit to any church during Mass time. it is rather impresive, and, of course, free of charge. i m sorry for calling Maestro Daniel Roth by a the wrong name of David.
    Check him out there in the youtube site

  37. stéphane Says:

    We are on the same channel, so many children are learning instruments for years, sometimes without hearing the word improvise. Improvisation and composition is such a amazing experience when you are musician. Some classical musician are sometimes left unhappy with their education, being unable to express themselves on a simple chord progression. Educated to be top musicians but something is missing right?

  38. sangervasiu Says:

    hi, I knew about these composers being great improvisors, but do you know the titles of the books you mentioned by Bach and Handel ? thank you for this article

  39. sr Says:

    very interested in this –
    wondered if you have the references?

    • Rafael Says:

      This is very interesting material, but I also wonder about the sources. I’m writing an academic essay and would love to use some of that information, but I need primary sources citations to be accepted by the committee. Do yo have it?

      Thanks you very much!
      And congratulations for the nice article.

  40. […] one time classical technique was rooted in improvisation [citation] but this has long since calcified (perhaps not unlike our faith?). While my piano teacher would […]

  41. clara Says:

    umm good now i can work on the essay

  42. Rafael Says:

    This is very interesting material, and I wonder about the sources. I’m writing an academic essay and would love to use some of that information, but I need primary sources citations to be accepted by the committee. Do yo have it?

    Thanks you very much!
    And congratulations for the nice article.

  43. Kasia Says:

    GREAT ARTICLE! But sentence about Chopin compositions being just a pale shadow of his improvisations was said by Fontana – at least according to Tad Szulc :Chopin in Paris: The Life and Times of the Romantic Composer, Simon and Schuster, 1999, p.265

  44. […] moments are not just limited to jazz.  Classical music has a long history of improvisation stretching all the way back to Bach and beyond. The French musical impressionist Claude Debussy […]

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    Helpful discussion , I learned a lot from the insight – Does anyone know where my company might get a template NY DTF ST-100 form to complete ?

  47. Fabian Rojas Says:

    Please! Your sources would be so usefull for us Could you share it? You know how academic environments are

  48. Julian Townsend Says:

    “The piano was misused for the violinist so he had to play the piece by ear in a different key”…… WTF?

  49. stellar blog Says:

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  50. Phil Hanson Says:

    not sure if you still manage this site, but if so I just wanted to say, I’ve been following this post for years. I bought a biography of Bach off the back of reading this too!! Nice work 🙂 I love the idea that he used to hold improv battles and wipe the floor with anyone who came to town. I hope one day this storyline gets made into a film. Makes todays rap battles look like a kids game!! Would be interested to know if there is any more info on this topic.

  51. TOBIAS RÜGER Says:

    Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto was written down by the maestro without a solo cadenza. After the publisher complained that some performers could not improvise Beethoven wrote down the solo part which we find today in the score. However, it was meant to be only an option.
    When pianist Fazıl Say perfomed the piece some three years ago in Frankfurt he played his own cadenza. Very refreshing to hear the old masters’ work performed that way.

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