Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

In the jazz idiom, there’s an old saying that goes: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

What does it mean and why is it important?

The phrase is often used to describe the overall process of developing your artistic voice as a musician.

If you’ve been lead to believe that originality and artistry can only be developed by completely isolating yourself from outside influences, then you are making a mistake! Every influential artist throughout history has gone through this process of imitation, assimilation, and innovation. Music isn’t created in a vacuum.

Imitate means to simply parrot a piece of music without giving it much thought. When an infant learns to speak a language, they start by simply trying to imitate the sounds with their mouth. Later in their development, they’ll start to use more complicated words without understanding the meaning. We want to adopt a similar approach when starting to learn the language of music. In other words, learn other people’s compositions!

Assimilate means to go one step beyond just parroting, and to analyze and understand the inner mechanics of a piece of music. Continuing the language metaphor, it is similar to learning about grammar and syntax. What makes the melody so engaging? What is that dissonance in the harmony that I like? Why is the rhythm so funky and danceable? These are the questions one might ask as they begin to understand a piece of music. Learn some music theory and begin to dissect your favourite pieces!

Innovate means to take what you’ve learnt and to put your own spin on it. This is where the magic happens. Take an old familiar melody and change one note. That becomes your mark of innovation on that piece. Maybe you’ve always loved the sound of Hendrix’ use of the 7#9 chord so you’ll use it in a chord progression from a different song. You could reharmonize a familiar song in the style of Miles Davis. This is where the sum of your influences can create an identifiable voice. A fun exercise is to do an artist mashup: what would it sound like playing a Jimi Hendrix lick over a Miles Davis song?

Remember that any style of music generally adheres to an accepted “system” of what sounds good and doesn’t. If you try to innovate before imitating or assimilating, you will be going in blind and relying on chance to discover something that sounds good and is original. Avoid reinventing the musical “wheel”, countless musicians have already done the work for you!