To the uninitiated, jazz seems to revolve around several musicians instantaneously coming up with notes that somehow manage to appeal to the audience’s ears. Even as a student of the genre, the spontaneity at which professional jazz musicians improvise beautiful solos can be baffling. When there is quite literally an infinite number of musical phrases you can play, it seems impossible to ascertain the right arrangement of notes to play. The reality is, however, jazz is often times easily delineated with the right information. There are a variety of approaches a musician takes when improvising. The only factor that seems to obfuscate jazz improvisation is simply a lack of understanding. With enough information, anyone can understand how most improvisers pick the “right” notes.
Using Information Measurement Theory, we can better understand the approach to jazz improvisation. Although jazz often seems wild and unpredictable, jazz improvisation is heavily rooted in ideas that can be obtained through practicing and listening to the vast libraries of existing music. Most ideas are not made up on the spot—they are either preconceived or borrowed from other music. The ability to improvise music and adapt as a group is more rooted in the accumulation of prior information and experience than it is in pulling ideas out of nowhere. Many people generate vast misconceptions regarding the genre for this reason. Through harmony, rhythm, and a long list of other improvisational techniques, the process becomes very logical and simple to understand. While there is definitely spontaneity and soulful inspiration in what a jazz musician brings to the stage, music can all be understood logically through information measurement theory.
IMT can be implemented in the act of improvisation. There are a number of different ideas that a soloist takes into consideration when approaching an improvisational solo. First and foremost is the necessity of information. A soloist must first be familiar with the chord progression to a song. This provides a broad framework on which they can choose and create ideas to play on. Next, they must access their prior knowledge regarding these chords and the specifics of the song. Often times, jazz musicians will pull from an expansive backlog of musical phrases they have learned from other musicians or ones that they have spent time developing. At its root, improvisation is not reactive at all. While jazz musicians must always be listening and adapting, they know how to react because of the prior knowledge that they have acquired through years of practice. This is why it takes years and years of practice to be able come up with anything substantial on the spot. Thus the best approach to improvising is accumulating enough information to minimize the amount of decisions required to play an artistic and entertaining solo.