Improvisational theatre

Gareth James, CC BY-NC

Firstly: what is improvisational theatre? Don't be surprised by this question, artistic activity of "improv" is in many countries considered a foreign fad and a threat to mimes. Here I would like to focus mostly on a subfield of improv games, which would be best described with a paraphrase of notrightmusic's definition from our main page: "A set of rules that control players to spontaneously create a play." If you want a thorough overview of improv, consult Wikipedia. Let's now have a look at improv games to find everything good to get inspired by… or to steal.

Situation of similarity

How these two compared game types (for music and for theatre) function in a social context is similar in nature although different in scale. Both work as a small group activity, privately or as spectator events. For amateurs both music and theatre games are either just fun or as a personal development tools, as they involve participants creatively, performatively and intelleactually also both activities don't require much prior theoretical expertise to be enjoyed "from the inside". For practicioners games might be a kind of professional training (this is allegedly an origin of theatre improv games) and that training in effect develops improvisation skill or sometimes is just a more playful approach to drill excersises. Then, if you're good, you can record albums of music games or do your improv full-time.

The similiarity can be seen also in scale of operation for both types of games. The fact that both types of games are to be at least potentially staged requires you to take into consideration spatial aspects of the game, although in improv games movement is usually crucial whereas in music games the focus of visual attention can sometimes narrow down much more than any theatrical prop allows.

Improv full-time

With theatre improv it's really interesting where it landed as for it's popularity (at least in English speaking countries). Sure to mention here is a TV show Who's line is it anyway? - developed in UK (started as a radio programme in 1988, with John Sessions and Stephen Fry as key performers) then peaked in US (with Drew Carey, Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Wayne Brady…). Crazy popular even when aired against Friends (where Lisa Kudrow was herself revolutionising sitcom, getting to the show straight out of improv troupe).

Now to the question: how could improv be so popular as music games will probably never be? Firstly, by design. Keith Johnstone was developing his improv games with explicit focus of engagement of the audience and his main inspiration was actually… wrestling. This activity of "professional" wrestling (staged fights with jumping, shouting etc.) is also totally unfamiliar to some cultures. Similarly improv was not designed specifically as a comedic form, but that focus is nowadays dominant.

Two main routes to comedic scene development would be engaging characters or providing reference (this according to Martin Short and Stephen Colbert discussing improv in the interview). Both tactics are based on familiarity, but even within this closed frame, possibilities are vast, this allows for recognizable, spectacular and impressive skill to manifest itself. This skill (usually more than just "content") is a huge part of appeal from spectator point of view, directly in contrary to improv orignators' intentions.

In the field of music games there's not much to resemble that "familiarity" effect. Surely, skill is to be appreciated and there are games where rule-based solos are played to typical accompaniment or with Zappesque games of genre-jumping. But at their origin game pieces were to escape genre, were a way to widen musical horizons. It would be hard to reduce the field of music games to get along well with modern popular music scene, but let's not be discouraged by that.

Improv music games

In a popular improv setting there is an instrumentalist (or a small ensemble) that provides musical context and tunes for improvising actors to play with or against. These musicians surely play hard. The situation requires a particular set of skills like genre-juggling, sound-scaping and following both rules of the game and cues from actors. Viewing it from our context, you get a loosely defined, yet deep and complex music game; unfortunately extremely demanding. Music there might be great, but it also might be cliché and no-one actually minds as it rarely takes the foreground.

It's also worth noting that there are improv games that deal with music directly. Here we can conveniently lean on a resource of where you can find a table of games with some of their features marked. What draws attention first is a column "No words" - for 44 games on a list only 6 are marked with "No words" tag. On the other hand there are 13 games in "Rhyme" category. Words are key part of musical improv games and you can safely treat here the word "musical" as in a "Broadway musical", not only "related to music".

From the list I picked only two games that would to the extent fit in the scope of our library: "Acapella harmonies" and "Harmony duets". These two can be easily de-acapella-ised, and look how familiar they seem from the musical point of view.

Acapella harmonies

Players [… ;)] start to sing held notes
Every person should be singing at the same volume to create a group chord
It can sound horrible, or beautiful. Embrace both. […]

Some variant of the one above you can see at almost any free improvisation workshop and as an intro to every second kraut rock concert ;). The next arrangement is a bit more gamey in appearance, probably because it's turn-based. It works well musically if apart from changing pairs you have also some percussive context providers that play all the time.

Harmony duets

Person 1 sings a short tune (can be la-la-la)
Person 2 joins in the second time with a harmony line
Person 2 repeats their line on their own
Person 3 joins in with Person 2 with a harmony line. (Person 1 can now go and make a cup of tea)
Person 3 repeats their line on their own

Many musical improv games are actually precomposed simple pieces with words to fill. Here is an example of a notorious music game for improv: "Irish Drinking Song".

Current bond

First general similarity is audience participation. In the example above viewers call a theme for a song to be performed next. Even when there is no actual audience at the music game meeting, people that don't perform music in a given game might start games by choosing a variant, assigning roles for players or deciding on a possible theme to play.

In a more staged situation it's really easy (and I would encourage you to do so) for audience members to participate in games themselves, often even without producing sounds but as Conductors. In some games with subjective aspect, they can serve as Judges and might even be encouraged to interfere with the performance collectively, for example decide who should "lose" in a given round of a game (like in theatre improv "die!" games).

Typical improv mechanics worth using in music games is tagging out. When only some players perform in a given game, they might be at any point swapped by another player. This might work as the critique system - queued up player picks the person who in one's opinion didn't did worse in that round and replaces him or her in a piece. Of course tagging out can just serve a purpose of mixing things up and then you pick a player who's role you can take over or to follow any specific idea you have.

You can also use a typical improv arrangement as a variant ending: one person selected before the game is responsible for choosing the ending moment of a piece. This (similarly to starting arrangements described in the first paragraph of this section) has a positive effect of stretching performers' creativity out of their comfort zone. Running out of ideas for things to play when a leader decides to prolong the game is just the moment for your development. This optional ending may be used in many free-form activities from our library.

More direct inspirations are already present in our library. Entitled piece is a take on "audience suggestion" idea. Two-headed soloist is based on "Three-headed Broadway Star" improv game. Adaptation was simple: in theatrical improv game, players sing one word at a time where as music game version requires you to play one note of a melody. The 3-split free-form is like "Sitting Standing Lying" improv game (and its variants). Spatial qualities were translated to musical, and that's the approach that can be employed more often to further enrich our library. Try it yourself!


What is very inspiring is the amount of theory that got built around improv in it's quite long life. At you can see not only games, but also all the terminology which allows for much easier communication and development of new ideas. There are also developed by the community sets of tips for newcomers (so called "Rules of Improv") which apply also a lot to musical free improvisation. Here are some (same online source):

Say Yes-and! (accept ideas and develop)
Focus on Here and Now
Change, Change, Change!

Be vulnerable, Trust and support your partners, Misbehave in a playful way

Avoid judging what is going down except in terms of whether it needs help (either by entering or cutting), what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively if your support is called for.

This amount of useful (although sometimes excessive) theoretical baggage is still ahead of music games. Worth noticing that much of jargon is developed around the key theatrical qualities of impersonation and (engaging) story developmen. These questions seem harder in the context of music games, but it seems possible to classify basic improvisation interactions. What are the relations between players that could especially contribute to generating interesting music?

Thank you to Sebastian Świąder from the Association of Theatre Pedagogues (Stowarzyszenie Pedagogów Teatru) for suggestions regarding this text.

And maybe to you? Please comment to make this text better.

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