Billy Connolly, Daniel Barenboim, Willie Wonka, Jazz Bastards, and the Universality of Improvisation
Raymond MacDonald and Graeme Wilson
Group musical improvisation is an important artistic, educational, and therapeutic process, and understanding the unique mental, individual, and social processes involved should be a key task for psychology. This chapter summarizes constraints in how some branches of psychology and ethnomusicology have conceptualized improvisation, and describes recent research embracing the breadth of what constitutes improvisation in music. Analyzing how highly diverse musicians discuss the fullest range of improvisational practices indicates important relationships between this creative interaction and wider psychological and social constructs. The chapter also presents research investigating the relationship between improvisation and health, highlighting a number of key benefits connected with improvisation in music therapy for patients with cancer. Enhancing understanding of the process and outcomes of musical improvisation in this way can help realize the potential contribution of music participation to contemporary culture, creativity in everyday life, and therapeutic interventions.
Aaron L. Berkowitz
Cognitive neuroscience research has begun to elucidate the neural substrates and cognitive processes that are involved in musical improvisation. In turn, the study of improvisation from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience has provided new insights about the brain and cognition. This chapter reviews brain imaging research studies of improvisation and explores the relevance of this work to musicians, musicologists, music educators, and cognitive neuroscientists with respect to the practice and pedagogy of improvisation, comparisons between music and language cognition, mirror neuron systems, and neural plasticity.
Roger T. Dean and Freya Bailes
This chapter discusses the conceptual frameworks in which current empirical studies of cognition in musical improvisation are being undertaken. It takes as its starting point the significant theoretical and empirical contributions of the late Jeff Pressing, musician and researcher, several of which were directed toward opening up this area of investigation. It is on the theoretical bases of models such as his that experimentally accessible hypotheses about improvisation can be constructed. The chapter particularly addresses the issue of transitions and segmentation in improvisation. Comparative and cross-cultural studies of the cognition of improvisation are then briefly reviewed. Finally, the potential of cognitive studies not only to elucidate improvisational processes, but also to contribute to them, is described.
This chapter presents the guiding design rationale for the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Digital Improv Project, which studies human cognition as a means of informing the creation of interactive narrative experiences. This work serves as an example of studying human co-creativity with the end goal of developing computer/human systems that have similar control, knowledge, and status in a creative task. The chapter describes the novel iterative design and development model used in the project and its relevance to practices in the broader interactive narrative community.
This chapter is an inquiry into contemporary hip-hop theater and dance as one of the latest genres of concert theater that is steeped in an Africanist aesthetic with multiracial proponents. This Africanist theatricality engages embodiment of the word and music. Growing out of the expressive street forms of rapping, deejaying, and breaking, it provides a needed rejuvenation of Western theater and dance. The chapter examines the “mashup” as a complex interdisciplinary, intercultural high-stakes negotiation. Locating hip-hop dance within both hip-hop theater and postmodern performance (dance and theater) the chapter analyzes the work of an important genre that uses movement as the primary medium of storytelling. The result of the mashup is a conjuring magic that pushes the limits of what it means to be human and offers fuel for social change.
This chapter explores improvisation from a consciousness-based standpoint. Examination of an inner mechanics for the transcendent experience frequently reported by improvisers sets the stage for consciousness-based distinctions between improvisation and composition processes, in which improvisation is extricated from common misclassification as an accelerated subspecies of composition. Temporal, cultural, and linguistic factors are considered in distinguishing between improvisatory and compositional paradigms. The intimate melding between musicians and listeners in peak improvised performance is paralleled with the deep collective communion associated with group meditation practice as indicative of a nonlocal, intersubjective field of consciousness, empirical support for which suggests that possible societal benefits may result from certain applications. An “improvisatory hermeneutics” is considered as a means for new ways of perceiving global challenges and paradigmatic change that centers intersubjectivity and other anomalous possibilities not commonly embraced in academic and public policy discourse.
Although singing is a universal human activity, many adults in Western society exclude themselves from singing, often self-defining as “non singing” or “tone deaf.” This chapter focuses on singing difficulties in adults (excluding vocal injury or illness), in particular, difficulties with singing acceptably in tune, or poor pitch singing. It examines the ways in which poor pitch singing has been defined and assessed in psychological research, and considers the relationship between singing pitch accuracy and cognitive mechanisms of pitch perception and sensorimotor coordination. The chapter outlines the very different profiles of singing performance associated with self-defined “tone deafness” and congenital amusia (a musical perceptual learning disorder), and places these in the theoretical context of neuropsychological and developmental research, drawing on models of singing development in children. Finally, the potential for adult vocal and musical development is illustrated with a few extant studies, and outlined as topic for further research.
This essay discusses the phenomenon of disabled Union veterans who turned to the profession of organ grinding during and after the American Civil War: they became mendicant musicians who played music in the streets to beg for money. Within a cultural logic that emphasized the sorting of worthy from unworthy poor—and “true” veterans from “imposters”—the related practices of street music and mendicancy were harshly stigmatized. Although artistic and literary representations of disabled organ grinders often used the performers as rhetorical devices to elicit fear, loathing, or pity, closer scrutiny of surviving documentary evidence reveals that the men indeed possessed agency, along with a capacity and desire for self-representation.
Jared Burrows and Clyde G. Reed
Freely improvised music lacks commonly used mechanisms (e.g., scores, conductors, shared performance practices) that serve to coordinate choices across performers in other musical genres. This chapter analyses problems and solutions of musical coordination in free improvisation through the lens of “path dependence,” an analytic framework used in economics to model situations in which agents perceive a high pay-off to coordinating market choices. Key results in the path-dependence literature are the likelihood of multiple equilibria and “lock-in” to inferior outcomes. The interpersonal skills identified as critical for coordination in free improvisation closely parallel the skills that have been identified by social scientists as essential for high-functioning group behavior in non-musical pursuits. This suggests a pedagogical role for improvisation in enhancing economic and personal well-being with regard to human capital formation and happiness.
One of the particular joys of improvising music together is not knowing precisely the relationship between one’s own actions and thoughts (one has to surprise oneself, after all) or between one’s actions and those of other improvisers (did you do that because I did that? Or did I do that because you did that?). Drawing on research in social psychology, actor-network theory, and the extended mind thesis in cognitive science, this chapter argues that one’s experience of musical “authorship” can be enhanced or undermined rather easily by social, material, and technological forms of agency in the environment. It concludes that musical improvisation offers simultaneously a situated practice for exploring interagency—and thereby exorcising the humanistic ghost of a “self-luminous” will—and the possibility of creating some provisional closure, some fleeting reduction of complexity, in a world increasingly characterized by relentless machinic heterogenesis.