The Subtle Paths Of Musical Nuances

Improvisation is derived from the word 'improve' which has several connotations. It means advance, develop, make better, increase, revive, strengthen, enhance, enrich, refine, decorate, etc. In music it means 'invent and perform on the spur of the moment' or 'make from whatever is available'. Precisely, musical improvisation means embellishment or decoration interspersed into a composition/raga as a part of artistic endeavor to make it aesthetically large as it gets ornamented with different elusive and refined technicalities.


Improvisation is a process done after a composition is ready. Composition comes prior to improvisation. While in the process, a composer is not sure what he is going to compose at that creative moment. A piece of idea for an art always develops along with the line of imagination. After the process of composing music the ideas of improvisation creeps in or, at times improvisation goes along with composing.

In his essay David K. Lines discusses an important aspect of improvisation i.e. "its capacity to intensify and heighten the dynamic qualities of the musical moment." and it arises from "a presumed detachment between pre-composition and performance."

It is impossible for an artistic mind to confine into strict pieces of ideas. He has to wander to be explorative to produce artistic pleasure with his talent and imaginary powers not just to himself but also to the listeners. Constantijn Koopman says that there is no defined scheme or goal of any artistic activity. 

'In arts there must be a room for the free exercise of imagination'.  -1

Significance of Improvisation 

Talking of Indian Classical music improvisation with self-expression in a rendition is considered to be superior that the listeners rejoice to the triumph of the artist. Improvisation is a very important aspect of creativity for a musician and what it brings forth in music is that:

  • It elevates and takes a musician to new heights of expression.
  • A musician goes beyond memorizing.
  • It brings novelty to the old expressions.
  • It enables to explore new expression for which the musician is not pre-prepared or rehearsed.
  • It provides an opportunity to gain insights in a musical phrase or composition.
  • It gives value to the musical expression.
  • It encapsulates a meaningful expression that one remembers temporarily at a particular moment of musical experience.
  • It opens the mind and thought.
  • It enriches the relation of art and the artist.
  • It breaks the walls of marginalized music.
  • It improves the aesthetic quality of a composer and an artist.

Improvisation is not a deliberate element in Indian music but it eventually becomes a natural phenomenon after rigorous practice. While performance, it flowers beautifully as a reflection of all the past efforts of continuous austere practices. Other than practiced musical phrases, few improvisations can be extempore musical intonations. Moreover the practice of any raga done in solace is based totally on the attained knowledge from guru and thereafter expressing the self (improvisation) with notes, adhering to the grammar of raga.

Indian Classical music is a music form that has acquired cultural respectability since it began flourishing; from the ancient religions, the folk cultures and then the courts till date. Since that era lots of social, economic, political and cultural developments have occurred that introduced several elements into the traditional matrix of Indian music. Still, at present the improvisational technicalities of music remain almost the same. It is improvisation through which Classical music is expressed in its traditional form, a form that has witnessed different cultures and invaders from time to time and gradually developed through ages for three thousand years.

Every time Indian Classical is performed it reaffirms our own culture. Especially, to mention Dhrupad; a single grandeur form in Classical music that flourished in the 15th and 16th century and even at present continues to embraces tradition with all gratitude. It is essentially devotional by nature and its connoisseurs have strictly maintained its pure serene disposition and structure.

Khayal is another genre that came with Persian influence in the 18th century. The genre is different from Dhrupad in its execution and treatment as it allows the free exercise of ideas and also is different in its expression that range wide in all rasas. Importantly Indian classical music has force and delicacy, freshness and vigor, austerity and flexibility with a great variety of genres as Dhrupad, Dhamar, Khayal, Thumri, Tappa, Kajri, Hori, Jhula etc. 

Improvisation is one of the significant characteristic of Indian classical music. The techniques of improvisation are unique in every gharana. But, in the present times an artist has vast exposure that has made him/her an institution of several styles of music of each gharana. An artist has become a flux or a mix. Today we find a performance blended with the musical elements of Kirana or Gwalior or any other style of gharana infused in the same raga simultaneously by a single artist. Previously an artist was known for his/her style of improvisation in performance of classical music. To remember the genius of Amir Khan in his augmented and rich elaborations (bilambit) in raga rendition as well as his illuminating flash of vigorous taans (drut) in his so perfectly skilled tonalities that boundlessly mesmerized the audience. The so well versed Gundecha brothers, connoisseurs of Dhrupad style of singing are significant for articulating their own style in rendition. An embrace of peculiar tonal conversation, attuned audible harmony, vivid elaborations with remarkable meend, gamak and vehement jod-jhala essentially display the ambassadorship of their art. The ambience of their musical mannerism and dexterity, absolutely splendid and astounding has attained a dignified praise from the audience. 

Techniques of Improvisation in Classical Music  

Improvisation comes through a deep connection of the artist with the raga or any composition he sings/plays. Exuberant improvisation highly depends on his/her core relations with the musical piece. Deeper the relation more subtly enhanced shall be the improvisational techniques delivered by the artist.

In Indian Classical music improvisation is intricate by nature. The embellishment of any raga facilitates innumerable decorative patterns, styles or cluster of notes. As the basic Indian scale is based on chromatic system there are 22 microtones through which the artist creates wonders with notes introducing mini treats of slides/slur (mirh), trills (khatka), murki, gamak etc. These small technicalities are permutation and combination of notes within the frame of a particular raga; strictly adhering to the traditional pattern of ascending and descending notes. For instance in ragas asBhupali and five notes are used (Audhav jati) and so all the decoration is done exempting two notes which conforms to its basic structure.

There are other techniques of improvisation that include the use of nom, tom, na, ree, ray, etc. words during elaboration (alaap) especially in Dhrupad. In the ancient time, the chants of Vedas included the cosmic word 'Om' that gradually came to be improvised in a Dhrupad with 'Om Hari Narayan'. Still changing shape the words like nom, tom etc. began to be used in elaboration and ornamentation of a raga. The structure of these words has changed but the meaning still remains the same which suggests a union with almighty, a trance and a direct unique conversation with God.

During the alaap while improvising with words of a khayal another important thing to follow is to keep the meaning of the words and pronounce them with clarity. Most of the artists get swayed with the alaap ignoring the importance of words and their meaning. The impact of words with their meaning is explained through the bhava of notes used to describe them which makes the rendition more and more expressive and exuberant.

Another factor that is included in the techniques that support the aesthetic beauty and balance of a raga is the control in the volume and speed during elaboration. Each musical phrase can sound awe-inspiring if rendered with a balanced volume modulation with perfect timing. A musical phrase with no timing can seem dragged and with no volume control may sound harsh or uninteresting. Therefore, this elementary factor cannot be ignored.

Taan in a raga is a rapid pace improvisation. It includes the speedy delivery of notes with the fast (drut) rhythm. All through the process an artist has to be fastidious. Clarity along with accuracy in notes is a demand of raga rendition. Moving steadfast but with equilibrium with rhythm requires rigorous personal practice.

The most aesthetically important aspect of good improvisation in raga is the rasa or pleasure derived through it, both by the audience and the performer. In Indian classical music there are so many ragas with minute difference and others which change with the stress given on a particular note (dominant and sub-dominant) that naturally alters the bhava or expression of that raga. Therefore improvisation in raga depends on each raga's individual mood. Whatever the improvisational techniques, most important is to fulfill the aesthetic quotient (rasa) which is the fundamental requirement for the relation of art with the artist and audience.

An Overview 

It is interesting to note that though the language of music is universal, in different countries there are different set of rules for music regarding scales, tonal quality, rendition, style, genres etc.
When we talk of the music of West, few genres of music openly allow improvisation. Improvisation is found mostly in styles such as Jazz, Popular, Rap, Pop etc. But Western classical music, allows no added self expressions. One of the famous connoisseurs of Western Classical, Stravinsky in his autobiography wrote that, in Western classical the performer should follow the composer's written music, which means without adding their self expression. In the Western Musicology and education the characteristic of improvisation is not welcomed as it is thought to be unforeseeable. In the words of Yehudi Menuhin,

'Unlike the West, here each instrumentalist evolves his own method of fingering'..The ornamental qualities of the Indian music idiom may not suit for a disciplined uniformal group playing system.'-2
In our ancient Vedas, collective group rendition of richas/shloks was a common practice. This gives an evidence of group singing from the very ancient Indian culture. When later classical music evolved, being a stream of melodic pattern, it was more relished in its solo form recitals. Just what is vague in our theory of music till date, is its notation system, which is devoid of preserving minute details of music to be remembered in its original form.

Over the ages several experts, music virtuoso and performing connoisseurs have been evolving their own views and styles in classical music that is being passed on to the generations together. Eventually, there emerged several styles (improvisational techniques) in a raga rendition from different group (gharanas) of artists. The style of elaboration, speedy renditions, minute phrases etc. in each gharana had their own gravity and significance. 

Being basically a self-expressive art, Indian Classical music allows improvisations to the maximum expressive power of an artist. Expressing his views on the rooted tradition in music, Vijay Raghav Rao in 'Tradition and Improvisation in Indian Music', writes that,
'Our manodharma (extemporization) system that provides spontaneous inspiration to any skilled musician (of course within the set rules of tradition) is like fountain head for free improvisation of the melodic order.'-3
It can be postulated that Indian music allows an artist to express enormously our comprehensive musical ethos. Whatever the implications of music; its eventual progressions; its abundant improvisations, Indian classical music requires immense concentrated practice, intense knowledge of technicalities and staunch determination to reach high marks of musical virtuosity. 

- 1. pp118, Constantijn Koopman, "Music Education, Performativity and Aestheticization", David K. Lines (ed), "Music Education for the New Millenium: Theory and Practice Futures for Music Education and Learning", Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
- 2., 3. pp37,38 ,Gauri Kuppuswami, M. Hariharan, 'Readings on Music and Dance', B R Publishing corporation, Delhi, 1979.
- Iyer padam "Music Information Retrieval". Vishwabharti Publication New Delhi, 2004.
- David K Lines, "Improvisations and Cultural Work in Music and Music Education". David K. Lines (ed), "Music Education for the New Millenium: Theory and Practice Futures for Music Education and Learning", Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
- Sheila Dhar, 'The Cooking of Music and other Essays', Permanent Black, New Delhi,2001.  


More by :  Dr. Venus Tarkaswar

Top | Culture

Views: 3391      Comments: 1

Comment Hi,

thanks for posting the interesting article.
Hear a few thoughts about the word improvisation. It doesn't
trace back to 'to improve' but to the
'im- ' a prefix of negation
and to
'pro' - meaning 'for' or before
as well as to
'visere' - to see

So it makes more sense to me to read it a
'un- for- seen'

what actually happens up to a certain degree in all improvisations,
not only in music.

The quote on Stravinsky and Western music is interesting, but I have to
assure you that Western Classical music interpretation gives a lot of space for self-expression, otherwise there would be only this
'one- solution' for any piece.
This does not interfere with what Stravinsky said, but makes sure that all
the written out music is to be understood and performed in a appropriate way.
the art of interpretation can be to find individual ways of handling this defined musical material.

A propos
'Significance of Improvisation'
How about ' individuality ' that can be brought into music, that covers a lot of
interpretation that can only be done by this 'one' player , all in the sense
as being un-de-vided

sincerely from South Germany


15-Dec-2012 04:37 AM

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