Imitation, assimilation, innovation in music

Imitation, assimilation, innovation in learning a style of music

A style in music is a set of musical conventions. The conventions determine every aspect of that particular musical style: melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color, dynamic and also instrumentation, repertoire, expressions. In jazz two musical aspects are important as well: improvisation and swing.


Music has many parallels with languages. One of them is the way music is learned. The first steo in learning a musical style is by repetitive imitation. Similar to learning to say ‘dada, mama, papa’ all aspects of a style are imitated at first. This means that melodic motives, phrases and sentences have to be learned by imitation, as well as the harmonies and their progressions, the rhythmical patterns, the usage of musical colors and the use of dynamics.


Not until a certain quantity of musical aspects is learned, the musician feels at home in a musical style, feels a kind of ownership of that style and has a natural way of being able to play in that style. The style is no longer coming form outside in but from inside out. At that stage the style is assimilated by the musician. Once the style is assimilated, the head-hand-hart collaboration works in a balanced way. The musician knows the music, has the technique to play the music, and is able to be expressive in playing the music.


Innovation follows after imitation and assimilation. The word is rather deceptive: innovation ranges from showing evidence of clear, personal and advanced assimilation of a style to having the ability to add new and formerly unused aspects to the style. Once the new added aspects are essentially different form the aspects used before and the innovations are seen as being essentially different, a new style is created. For the musician who has made the innovations, the new aspects are already assimilated. Musicians, who have not made the innovations, have to learn them, have to assimilate to the innovations.

Imitation, assimilation, innovation in a musical culture

Cultures at large, at continental level, constantly influence each other. Consequently part of cultures, e.g. the food, clothing, housing, music culture, do the same.
The process of imitation, assimilation and innovation that works on an individual level for the individual musician, works on a higher level, on the level of musical culture as well.
The collective learning of a music culture starts with imitating certain aspects of a music culture, or just some aspects of one style of that music culture.
As more and more aspects are taken over and as more musicians become familiar of the foreign music culture, the new music culture starts to become known, owned and thereby assimilated. An intensive dialogue between the senders of the music culture and the receivers is taking place.
Innovation of a musical culture, similar to innovation on an individual level, can only take place after imitation and assimilation. Receivers of a music culture, once they have assimilated to that music culture, can innovate the received music culture by adding musical aspects from their own music culture that are unknown to the senders of the music culture. At that stage, when innovations take place, the once new music culture is not only assimilated but also has become an integral part the existing music culture. When the dialogue continues, both music cultures, the once sending and the once reconvening music culture, operate on equal basis to each other and keep stimulating one and another with as result a continuation of the process.

In jazz in the historical period the music culture in Europe imitation, assimilation and in the last two styles innovation took place. In the institutional period both the jazz music culture from the USA and from Europe contributes to the developments of the neo-styles in jazz. In the digital period, musical aspects from music cultures from all continents have contributed to innovations in jazz.

Postscript 1

To demonstrate how imitation, assimilation and innovation works between cultures, the food culture is often used. From the ‘Pizza Napolitana’ from Italy at first some of the ingredients, the oregano, the garlic the olive oil, were used in other food cultures. After that the pizza was imitated and assimilated in the ‘real’ Italian restaurants around the world. The ingredients that were added to piazzas all over the world have influenced the Italian pizza that now in Italy contains the influences from all over the world as well.

Postscript 2

The ongoing imitation, assimilation and innovation process in jazz has a positive side: the side of jazz being a living and ever expanding art form. The process also has a negative side: the ‘cultural claiming’ of styles of jazz and the entire musical culture of jazz. Claims are made in jazz on race, gender, geographical and demographical preferences, political standpoints and financial successes.
In his writing it is the intention to leave any and all of these claims.