It’s been awhile since I’ve written about the essential principles of improvisation. In previous posts I’ve covered the principles of staying present, not-knowing and unity and contrast.

Another important and often neglected principle of improvisation (and music generally) is the importance of space and silence. After all, music is not just sound, it is a pattern of sounds (and the spaces between them) taking place against a backdrop of silence. In notated music, we call these spaces “rests.”

One of the hallmarks of a trained yet still artistically undeveloped improviser is someone who plays – all the time. There is no space, no silence. Avant-garde composer John Cage took the concept of silence to the other extreme in his famous piece 4’33” (which he called his most important work!). Granted that Cage’s actual intention wasn’t necessarily to highlight silence, though to audiences who believed that music consists of sounds made by musical instruments, it certainly seemed to be that.

Here’s a simple exercise and variation to try with improvisers of any skill level. It will help you teach them about the importance of silence in music and to consider the idea that less can often be more. And, since silence is a major component of the exercise, it can be as simple as you like.

The “Sound of Silence” Exercise

  • Remind your student that silence is the ground within which sounds happen. Without silence, we would have no way to distinguish sound, just as “up” doesn’t exist without “down” and there is no “true” without “false.” Music requires silence!
  • Have your student sit with their hands on the keys and eyes closed. Tell them that in this exercise there should always be more silence than sound. You could even say their improvisation should only include 5 or 10 notes, with a lot of silence between them. (Creative use of the damper pedal can add a lot to this exercise.) You could tell them about John Cage’s famous piece and suggest they could even begin their improvisation with silence.
  • When they’re finished, inform them that their improvisation was a success because they remembered that music is both sounds and You could even joke, “That’s the best silence I’ve heard anyone play today!”
  • Variation:  Sit at the keyboard with your student. You will play, while it’s their job to add space and silence to what you play. (Remind them that you are actually improvising together, even though they’re not playing.) They should tap you on the arm or shoulder when they think your improvisation needs a break. To emphasize the need for silence, include very little or no space in what you play. They should tap you again when they want you to resume playing. If you are new to improvisation, use the G-flat major pentatonic scale – i.e., all five black keys. There are infinite possible melodies within this scale and it’s hard to go wrong.

When you remind your students that music is not just sounds but also silence, you’re not only teaching them something that every creative musician should know, but also reducing the pressure to produce overly-complex music as they learn to improvise.

Less can be more, and silence can be golden.

Want to learn more about musical creativity? Check out this podcast with Tim Topham.

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