Improvisational Theatre and Music Games

The so called "improv", although popular in many places, is to some countries a fad or a threat to mimes. Improv games are a small subfield of this broad activity.

Surface Similarities

Social function of games for music and of games for theatre is similar. Both are a group activity, held privately or as spectator events. Although, when the games are staged, in music games the overall spatial aspect is less important and smaller in scope (e.g. components if present are tabletop-sized for easy manipulation while holding an instrument etc.)

For amateurs both types of activities might be just fun or a personal development tool, as they involve participants creatively, performatively, and intellectually; and also both activities don't require much prior expertise to be picked up. For practitioners games might be a kind of professional training and are commonly used in education.

The Historical Context

WLIIA was developed in the UK (started as a radio programme in 1988, with John Sessions and Stephen Fry as key performers) then peaked in the US with Drew Carey, Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Wayne Brady….

Improvisation in the theatre has a long history, but theatre games started post-war and are now interestingly popular. Sure to mention here is a hit TV show Who's line is it anyway? How could improv be so popular (as music games will probably never be)? First and foremost, by design: Keith Johnstone, one of a few independent pioneers, was developing improv games ("Theatresports") with explicit focus of engaging the audience and his main inspiration was actually… professional (staged) wrestling.

Although improv was not designed specifically as a comedic form, that focus is now dominant. Two main routes to comedic scene would be characters or references. Both tactics are based on familiarity, but even this narrow frame allows for skill to manifest itself. This improvisers' skill is a huge part of the appeal in current formats (contrary to intentions of improv originators that stressed content more).

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 a more "typical" accompaniment e.g. in Zappesque games based on genres. But at their origin game pieces were an attempt to escape the genre, they were a way to broaden musical horizons. So it is a challenge to make music games that get along well with pop music, for example.

Improv Music Games

Often in improv you may find an instrumentalist that provides musical context for improvising actors to play with or against. This requires a particular set of skills like genre-juggling, sound-scaping and following both rules of the game and cues from actors. You get a loosely defined and complex music game; unfortunately extremely demanding. Music there might be great, but it also might be cliché and… no-one actually minds as the music in improv rarely takes the foreground.

Classic parlour games like Magic Music appear at improv workshops too. A bit different, also language-independent category are "energizers" or "warm-ups" which often use rhythm and body percussion — but these usually don't let participants meaningfully influence the sound result. Some improv games deal with music more directly:

Danish Clapping

Stand in pairs in front of each other. You will move in rhythm with your partner.

Start with slapping your laps together and on the next beat individually choose a direction to point with both hands (top, left, or right).

As long as players show different directions on the beat (one player up, one left; or when both show "their" right which results in hands pointed opposite ways, etc.) the game continues in a steady slap-point-slap-point loop.

But in the case that both players showed the same direction, next time after slapping your laps, don't point but clap each other's hands on that beat ("high 10").

If it's easy to you, speed up.

Acapella Harmonies

Players stand in a circle with their eyes closed
After some breathing exercises they 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 above you can see at many improvisation workshops (like "One Note Piece" of Music for People) and instrumentally as an intro to every second kraut rock concert… See the video for it from Pass the Sound series as The Condensed Sound Bath.

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

Gamey in appearance, because it's turn-based.

#Song paradigm

Music is good if it has beautiful/wise/relatable lyrics. It's all about them! If there is music without words, it lets us imagine our own poetry to it.

Two last activities are quoted from Open Your Mouth And Sing webpage. At this source, a table of games showed at the moment of writing 44 titles, and only 6 of those were tagged as "No words", whereas there were 13 games in the "Rhyme" category. Generally, in improv it's better to understand the word "musical" more as in "a Broadway musical", not only "related to music". The most well-known musical improv games are pre-composed simple pieces with words to fill. Here is an example, "Irish Drinking Song":

Other Bonds Within the Library

In the video above viewers call a theme for a song. Audience participation is one of similarities between our fields. Both in staged context and at music games meetings, people that don't perform music may "seed" constraints to the played game to push players out of their comfort zone. Non-musicians may participate without producing sounds as Conductors or collective Judges.

Direct inspirations are already present in our library. Entitled piece is a take on an "external suggestion" idea. Two-headed soloist is based on "Three-headed Broadway Star" improv game. The 3-split free-form is like "Sitting Standing Lying" (and its variants) with spatial qualities translated to musical ones.

Check also improv mechanics for music for future design opportunities.

The fields are also bonded personally. One of the figures to mention would be a music games author W. A. Mathieu who is a former musical director of the first ongoing improv theatre groups in the U.S. — Second City from Chicago (read more in Listening Book review).

The Theory and Rules of Improv

Inspiring is the amount of theory that got built around improv. It has a rich glossary (much ahead of music games one) and much of jargon is directed towards substantial topics like players interaction, impersonation and story development. These basics seem harder to conceptualize in the more diverse context of music games, especially if you want "what is good music?" question to remain unanswered.

Finally, check out tips for newcomers (so called "Rules of Improv"). These apply well also to musical free improvisation:

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

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.

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

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 or improve it after clicking the "Edit" button below.

Sources / recommended follow-up

Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers Spolin's approach described — lists and rules of music games — games, glossary, "rules of improv"

Photo used for decoration: "Sad Mime" by Gareth James, CC BY-NC 2.0

If you think anything should be added to this subpage, please drop a hint or a link for future editors.

Unless stated otherwise Content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. See licensing details