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date: 20 February 2020


  • Bruno Nettl,
  • Rob C. Wegman,
  • Imogene Horsley,
  • Michael Collins,
  • Stewart A. Carter,
  • Greer Garden,
  • Robert E. Seletsky,
  • Robert D. Levin,
  • Will Crutchfield,
  • John Rink,
  • Paul Griffiths
  •  and Barry Kernfeld


The creation of a musical work, or the final form of a musical work, as it is being performed. It may involve the work’s immediate composition by its performers, or the elaboration or adjustment of an existing framework, or anything in between. To some extent every performance involves elements of improvisation, although its degree varies according to period and place, and to some extent every improvisation rests on a series of conventions or implicit rules. The term ‘extemporization’ is used more or less interchangeably with ‘improvisation’. By its very nature – in that improvisation is essentially evanescent – it is one of the subjects least amenable to historical research.

Bruno Nettl

In virtually all musical cultures there is music that is improvised. Societies differ, however, in several ways: the degree to which improvisation is distinguished from pre-composition; the nature and extent of the musical material which improvisers use as a point of departure or inspiration; the kinds and amounts of preparation required of improvisers, either in their musical training or in relation to individual performances; the relationship of written to oral transmission; and the relative social and musical value assigned to improvisations, compositions, and the musicians who practise them. For further discussion of specific traditions see entries on individual countries....

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