Improvisational theatre

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… We won't answer that fully, the field of improv is wide - Wikipedia has it covered. Here I would like to focus mostly on 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." Let's now have a look at improv games to find everything good to get inspired by… or to steal…

Situation of similarity

In usual 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.

But more generally how these two compared games (for music and for theatre) function in a social context is similar in nature although different in scale. Both theatre and music games work as an individual actvity, as training and also as spectator events. For amateurs they both are easy to treat either as just fun or as a personal development tool, because they involve participants creatively, performatively and intelleactually (list could go on) and both activities don't require much prior theoretical expertise to be enjoyed. For practicioners games might be a kind of professional training (this is allegedly an actual origin of theatre improv games). The training in effect developes improvisation skill or sometimes is just a more playful approach to drill excersises. Then, if you're good at some games, you can record albums of music games or do your improv full-time.

The above is connected to a very similar 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 similar spatial aspect although in iprov games they are always treated as much more dynamic and in music games the focus of attention can sometimes narrow down much more than any theatrical prop allows you to.

Improv full-time

With theatre improv it's really interesting where it landed as for it's popularity. Sure to mention here is a TV show Who's line is it anyway? - developed in Britain (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? My guess is that it's accessible because it usually plays with familiar themes. Two main routes to scene development would be engaging characters or providing reference. And with reference there is absolutely no need to be deep or specific (just keep with pop culture and genres). Even within this closed frame, possibilities are vast, this allows for recognizable, spectacular and impressive skill to manifest itself. This skill is a huge part of appeal from spectator point of view. You usually don't watch improv for "content".

In the field of music games there's not much to resemble that effect. Surely, skill is to be appreciated and familiarity happens for example when rule-based solos are played to typical accompaniment or with Zappesque games of genre-jumping. But at their origin games were to escape genre, were a way to widen musical horizons. You could even argue that most music games form a musical mini-genre of their own - distinguished from others but extendable and with great capacity. 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.

Improv music games

Firstly, it's worth noting that there are improv games that deal with music directly. Here we can conveniently lean on a resource of musical improv games page where you can find a table of games with some of their features marked. What draws my attention fast is a column "No words" - for 44 games on a list only 6 are marked with "No words" tag, these deserve to be described individually. On the other hand there are 13 games in "Rhyme" category. And let's face it, words are key part of musical improv games in general and most often: any improv games. Here is an example of a quite notorious music game for improv.

The "Irish Drinking Song"

For our music games the inspirations need to be more subtle - let's now see how they are already present in our library.

Existing bond

First general similarity is audience participation. At a typical music games meeting there is no audience or the roles are changable, you listen for one game and play for another. In a more staged situation it's really easy (and I would encourage you to do so) for audience members to participate, often even without producing sounds but by some form of conducting. Another way of involving audience is to call for their suggestions, this can be important part of playing the Entitled-piece game, where audience gives the next title, or they can call out roles to be assigned or collectively decide who should "lose" in a given round of a game.

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, and 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.


What is also very inspiring is the amount of theory that got built around improv in a long time when it was developed. Firstly, the terminology which allows for much easier communication and development of new ideas. Tips for newcomers ("rules of improv") apply also a lot to musical free improvisation.

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