MUS 390 Topics: Improvisation in Western Art Music Spring 2006-7
Syllabus Part I (Part II to be developed in class)

Dr. Eric Edberg, Professor of Music
122-E PAC ext. 4384
Office Hours by Appointment


  • Edberg, Eric. Improvisation and the Classical Musician [book draft/blog].
  • Ferand, Ernest Thomas. Improvisation in nine centuries of western music: :an anthology with a historical introduction. (out of print; on reserve in the Music Library)
  • Goehr, Linda. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (available at Fine Print or the University Bookstore).
  • “Improvisation.” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. <> (available free to DPU students)
  • Oshinsky, Jim, et al. Return to Child. (available from EE or from
  • Sandow, Greg. Sandow [blog].
  • _____. The Future of Classical Music [online draft book/blog].
  • Small, Christopher. Musicking: A Ritual in Social Space.
    A Lecture at the
    University of Melbourne June 6, 1995.” <>
  • various articles and multimedia resources TBA

Purpose and Overview

Classical music is in a time of profound transition. Many forward-looking critics, consultants, performers, and other analysts believe that much of the professional classical music world as we’ve known it for the past fifty years or so is crumbling. Full-time symphony orchestras and opera companies have experienced, almost universally, shrinking audiences and rising deficits, and many predict that a number of full-year professional symphony orchestras, for example, will have to shorten their seasons or even go out of business. The art-song and chamber-music business isn’t faring so well either. Greg Sandow says, “the era of classical music is going to end. Not this year, not next year, maybe not in 10 years (though surely by then we’ll see decisive signs of where we’re going). But sometime reasonably soon, the era of classical music will be over.”

When we look at this situation in a long-term historical context, it’s fairly easy to observe that “the era of classical music” has been in many ways relatively brief. Full-year, full-time symphony orchestras are a relatively new idea—really a post-WWII phenomenon. And mainstream, traditional classical music, in which thousands of different performers play, not-for-note, the same works by the same dead people (most of whom were German/Austrian, Italian, or French) is not all that much older. Professional orchestras, even partial-year ones, are a nineteenth-century development. As Linda Goehr explains quite clearly in The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, “classical music,” played in temple-like concert halls, meant to be living museums of the “great works” of the “great masters,” was an invention of the Romantic imagination of the nineteenth century.

The point here is that while many of us may be grieving the loss of the classical music world as we’ve known it, what we call “classical music” has been in a state of constant transition for all of time. For many reasons, many scholars and commentators have shifted from the term “classical music” to “art music.” “Art music” doesn’t have the same connotation of being focused in the Baroque/Classical/Romantic European tradition. “Art music” doesn’t necessarily imply a performer or performers precisely executing a detailed score by a composer.

All this is of crucial relevance to young musicians and music lovers. Are we in a situation of “classical music is dead, long live art music”? Are we in an era in which globalization and the cross-fertilization of musical genres (both intercultural and intracultural) makes distinctions such as “classical music” anachronistic?

If you are preparing for life as a performing musician, what are the implications for you? If you are going to be teaching music, how do you take all this into account? What if you are planning to be an arts administrator?

So in this course, we are going to rethink together some of the fundamental premises of “classical music.” Is the idea that a composer writes a completer art work which is “realized,” “executed,” or “recreated” by a performer or performers really accurate? Are performers co-creators with composers? Do you even need a composer? What’s music without a composer?

Someone once said, “the history of music is the history of musical works.” Christopher Small and others tell us that the history of music making and listening is just as important. So important that Small turned “music” back into a verb, “musicking.”

An appropriate subtitle for this course would be “musicking before, during, and after the work concept.” You’ve all taken a course in music history, in which you learned, among other things, a lot about the history of musical works and their composers. We’re going to take another look at music history, this time with the focus on the music making and the role of spontaneous creativity of performers. We’ll see that the sharp lines of distinction between composers and performers were drawn comparatively recently, and that they’ve never been as real, in practice, as many have thought they were (something composers have been acutely aware of and often quite resentful about).

All this will give us a lot of material as we think and imagine together about musicking, especially professional music making, in the future. Two of the most successful pianists performing today, for example, are remarkable because of their improvisational abilities: Robert Levin, who improvises in the styles of Mozart and Beethoven (always improvising his own cadenzas), and Gabriella Montero, who does improvisations inspired by classical pieces, but in her own jazz-influenced style. Although quite different from each other, what these performers are doing has much in common with performers of eras before the twentieth century.

Learning Activities

This course combines elements of a traditional history class with a musical-skills class. It’s as if we took a jazz history class (in which you’d do a lot of reading, listening, discussing, and hearing lectures) and blended it in with a jazz improvisation class (in which you’d be doing a lot of playing), except we’ll be looking at improvisational practices in Western art music.

It could be said that making music in a particular genre is a process of expressing/evoking emotions using a particular musical language, with it’s own grammar, syntax, traditions, conventions, etc. To become a fluent improviser in a particular musical language involves developing both basic improvisation skills and learning and internalizing the specific conventions of a style. It’s not a one-semester project! What can be done, however, is to learn about and try out a representative sampling of the conventions of a particular style, and to improvise with your own current musical vocabulary in a way inspired by and/or responding to a particular style.

The learning activities in the course will include

  • lecture
  • discussion
  • guest presentations
  • creative projects, including
    • writing
    • group and individual projects
    • improvisation workshops
    • improvisation exercises and jam sessions
    • performances


There will be three tests covering the historical information and concepts we learn. Much of the course, though, will involve creative projects. As a class, we will work together to decide what these creative projects will be, as well as how the final grade will be determined (as the teacher, I’ll make the official final decision).

By the end of the first week, we’ll have created together Part II of the syllabus in which we lay out the expectations for participation in the class and rubrics for the final grade.

Reading/Listening Assignments for Week One:

for Wednesday January 31 (and Friday February 2):

Be prepared to discuss all of the above.


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