Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 20 June 2018

Free Improvisation as a Path-Dependent Process

Abstract and Keywords

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.

Keywords: improvisation, economics, path dependence, coordination, multiple equilibria, human capital, happiness, pedagogy, musical genres, musical choice, group behavior, interpersonal skills

Musical coordination is commonly achieved by means of a score, a conductor, or the parameters of a shared performance practice. Freely improvised music lacks these mechanisms, yet improvisers are capable of finding other ways to coordinate their efforts and make aesthetic judgments on their success. In freely improvised music, we view musical success as the attainment of musical and interpersonal interactions in which players feel able to make strong and distinctive musical contributions and where a high level of musical coordination is present. Borrowing from economics, we apply the concept of “path dependence” to musical choices in freely improvised performance. Our purpose is to explore the process of improvisation through this lens. Some of the questions we ask are the following: How is coordination achieved in free improvisation? What determines the quality of the improvisation? How does our analysis of improvisation inform economic analysis?

We begin with a definition of improvisation in the context of music performance. Path-dependent analysis in economics is briefly discussed as well as its relevance to improvisation. We present a model of musical choice in the context of free improvisation and path dependence. From this perspective, we then analyze problems, benefits, and solutions in freely improvised music performance. Finally, we suggest how improvisation might inform recent work in economics on human capital formation and happiness.

Defining Improvisation

Improvisation in music has proven difficult to define.1 Consider a continuum in musical choice (notes, melodies, texture, dynamics, phrasing, rhythms, etc.). At one extreme of the continuum, all the choices are made in advance of performance by, for example, a (p. 397) composer or a constraining music tradition. At the other extreme musicians make all the decisions in the moment of performance, unconstrained by external coordination. The smaller the role of external coordination, the larger the role of in-the-moment decisions about what to play and how to play, and so forth, the more improvisation is present in the performance. In this view, there are two elements in play. The first is the degree of predetermined musical choice, the second is the range of musical choice allowed to the performers.

An example of the complete absence of improvisation in performance would be certain electronic music in which preprogramming eliminates all choice during performance. Composed music played by humans, even when fully scored and subject to extensive rehearsals, still can be expected to include subtle improvisation in terms of interpretation during performance. In most jazz performances there is extensive room for improvisation, but performers are still constrained in their musical choices by predetermined harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic structures. Freely improvised music is perhaps the form of music making closest to the improvisation end of the music spectrum, but even here the past plays a constraining role. For example, musical choices are influenced by previous performances, music vocabulary, practice history, listening history, and the sequence of musical choices immediately preceding the current choice during performance.

Path Dependence in Economics and Music

Path dependence in economic analysis can only arise in cases where an agent experiences an increase or decrease in the value derived from a good or activity when other agents consume the same good or engage in the same activity. This form of interconnectivity between choices across agents is called a “network externality.” It will motivate agents to coordinate their choices over goods and activities in order to maximize the benefits they derive from those choices. Depending on the specifics of the coordination environment, including the extent of knowledge about the time path of previous actions taken by agents, path dependence can result in a number of possible outcomes (“multiple equilibria” in the language of economists). Unlike in traditional economic analysis, the determination of equilibrium choice outcomes will be influenced by the specific path followed to realize them, hence the term “path dependence.” A common phrase associated with path dependence is “history matters.”

A classic illustration of path dependence involves the telephone. The value of owning a telephone increases with the number of other people owning a telephone. Under the expectation that very few individuals will have access to a telephone, the value of a telephone to a single individual will be low and the equilibrium outcome is that very few telephones will be demanded and therefore produced. Under the expectation that most people will have access to a telephone, the value to an individual of owning a telephone is high and in equilibrium many will be demanded and produced. The ability (p. 398) of potential buyers to easily coordinate telephone purchases is critical for determining which equilibrium outcome will occur.

Paul David uses the example of the longevity of the QWERTY keyboard for word processing to illustrate a path dependence case in which coordination is difficult, leading to the “lock-in” of an inferior technology.2 Initial typewriter technology relied on inked letters attached to levers that were activated when a typist depressed appropriate keypads. When a typist tried to type too fast, the levers would stack on top of each other, forcing the typist to stop word processing to disentangle the levers. The QWERTY layout placed many of the most-used letters in the English language further apart, thus slowing down typing and reducing the time spent disentangling the levers. According to David, it was an efficient layout given the mechanics of early typewriters. Over time, technological advances not only did away with the lever mechanism, but also with typewriters. In light of this history, one might expect that most word processing today would be done on computers using a more efficient keyboard in which the most used letters are close together and are placed in the most accessible regions of the keyboard. Instead the original QWERTY layout is still the dominant keyboard in use. David’s explanation is that, given the network externalities involved, the required coordination between word processor manufacturers, people training to be word processors, and buyers of word processors made it too difficult and costly for agreement to be reached on a better keyboard configuration. David’s pioneering work has been criticized with regard to the specific QWERTY example, but the connections between network externalities, path dependence, multiple equilibria, and the possibility of lock-in to an inefficient equilibrium are well accepted.

The relationship of this analytic framework to free improvisation can be seen in the following stylized scenario. A group of musicians get together to freely improvise music. There is no discussion before playing of how the music will start, how it will evolve, or how it will end. Players listen carefully to their own musical expressions, those of the other musicians, and the combined sounds of the group. They examine their emotional and intellectual reactions to what they are hearing. They then make musical choices about when to play, what to play, and how to play. Each player may choose to lead, to follow, to support, to play in contrast, to attempt to change musical direction, or to not play at all. This all happens in the moment. After some time, maybe instantly, the players settle into what we call a musical “equilibrium” in which players collectively explore and enhance a coherent musical space. We call the achievement of this equilibrium “coordination.” This could happen very fast and be very transient.

An equilibrium could be very complex, involving multiple layerings of musical ideas, emotions, and intentions. Equilibria may occur on a number of levels, including rhythmic or harmonic coordination, references to shared musical vocabularies, shared feelings of “flow,” emotional connection, or in some cases an ecstatic or trance-like coordination. The best equilibria involve a feeling of transcendence, of feeling fully alive, of feeling an overwhelming sense of elevation.

Decay of equilibria can be rapid as players lose emotional or intellectual interest or think of new ideas, and at some point a player decides that a new musical direction is required in order to sustain the level of music quality. The player then makes choices (p. 399) that disturb the old equilibrium. The choices may range from subtle variations or developments to stark contrasts or deliberately subversive musical actions. This is not to say that she always knows specifically where the music should go. The player may only know that her internal reaction to the music is such that the improvisation needs to change. She tries something and hears and feels the reaction from the other players. Do their musical choices change in response? Should the new direction be continued? Should it be made deeper, made simpler, made more complex?

Individual players may sense the need for musical change at different times and have different ideas about the direction of change. They may also differ in their attention and responsiveness to the musical choices of others in the ensemble. If the disturbance is effective, the players coordinate on a new equilibrium. The improvisation proceeds in this way. The quality of the performance, from the perspective of the musicians, will depend on the length of time between equilibria, the musical quality of those equilibria, and the musical relationships between equilibria. The greatest free improvisations exhibit an uninterrupted series of high-quality equilibria linked together to form a coherent structure or narrative, a wonder-filled coordination across equilibria that unifies the overall performance into a sublime experience.

The Model

Consider a simple case of freely improvised music performance. Let there be an improvising ensemble small enough such that each musician is aware of the musical choices of the other players. Let each musician make choices with the desire to maximize the quality of the improvisation. The choices will be based on personal aesthetics and the knowledge that the quality of the musical outcome will be enhanced if musical choices are coordinated.

Let there be M music outcomes in a performance. Think of these outcomes as either periods of equilibria or periods of searching for equilibria. Associated with each outcome let there be a musical pay-off in terms of personal aesthetics, θ, for the individual musician that may be positive, negative, or zero. Let personal aesthetic preferences differ across the musicians.

Let each musician make T (= M) sets of musical choices (i.e., one choice-set per outcome) and gain S > 0 of musical pay-off from each choice-set, but only when it is coordinated with the choice-set of the other musicians. Otherwise S = 0. This component of the model constitutes the “network externality” required in path-dependent analysis.

Each musician will make musical choices in order to maximize her own musical pay-off, which will be given by the sum of her personal aesthetic pay-off (θ) plus S in cases in which musical choices across players are coordinated. The larger is S, the greater will be the role of path dependence in determining the musical outcome.

The exogenous variables of this choice problem are S and the personal aesthetic values of the musicians (θ). The endogenous variables of greatest interest are the choices of (p. 400) the musicians (T) and the corresponding musical outcomes (M). In our exposition, we assume musicians are trying to maximize with respect to their own musical pay-off. The same model also applies if instead the musicians are trying to maximize with respect to their expectation of the musical pay-off for the general audience, for musicians in the audience, or for music critics. This model generates the standard path-dependent outcomes of multiple equilibria, some preferred to others, and the possibility of lock-in to an inferior equilibrium.3

Music Quality and Equilibrium

Music is a powerful medium for expressing emotion and states of mind. Equilibrium in our analysis simply means that improvising musicians feel connected to each other at a moment of time in expressing an emotion and/or state of mind. The equilibrium lasts as long as the players continue to make musical choices that maintain this connection. In our model, the highest-quality equilibria are those that, in addition to providing musical coordination, also express emotions and states of mind that are preferred by the musicians in terms of their personal aesthetics (i.e., highest valued θ). Low-quality equilibria are those in which the musicians are coordinated on emotions and states of mind that, while perhaps initially pleasing, impact negatively on their personal aesthetics—for example, “I am sick and tired of more of this shrill, high energy, musical blathering,” or “I can’t stand any more of this overly precious and pretentious spaciousness,” or “can we please move on from this increasingly boring pointillism?”

“Lock-in” refers to a situation in which the musicians are in a low-quality equilibrium and cannot coordinate their way to a better one. In general, when economists analyze coordination games it is common to have an equilibrium A that is preferred by all participants in the game to another equilibrium B, but if the participants find themselves in equilibrium B, no individual will be willing to change unilaterally.

We assume that individual players approach free improvisation with a variety of personal intentions and aesthetic frameworks. Obviously, we cannot account for all combinations of group dynamics or describe all individual viewpoints. In our model, an individual player approaches improvising with one imperative: to maximize musical satisfaction for herself. In order to do this she makes choices based on her personal aesthetic and also on her need to coordinate with the other members of the ensemble. In cases in which these bases of choice conflict with each other, the player makes choices that sometimes work in favor of her vision of the music, or she makes choices that sacrifice personal desires in favor of the perceived musical direction of the group. We see an ongoing negotiation of these values, a natural ebb and flow from one kind of choice to the other, as an integral part of the improvising process.

For situations in which musicians have substantially different aesthetic preferences, it is useful to consider an aggregate measure of musical performance. One possibility is audience response, another is critical appraisal from reviewers, yet another is to aggregate the (p. 401) aesthetic assessments of the performing musicians. In the latter case there are a number of statistical measures to choose from: mean, median, mode, range, and so on. In the context of a one-off performance, the choice over alternative measures of aggregate quality may be of small consequence. From the perspective of long-run viability, the choice becomes more significant. The prospect for future performances depends on audience and reviewer responses. Also, for musicians to be willing to continue to play together in what is primarily an artistic rather than commercial undertaking, their individual musical needs must be met. When aesthetic preferences differ, it is especially important for musicians to be sensitive during performance to how the music is affecting each player and that musical choices are adjusted accordingly. From this point of view, we suggest that aggregate musical quality should be measured by the assessment of the least satisfied performer.

Coordination Problems in Free Improvisation

Limitations imposed by coordination in freely improvised music performance are reflected in the following description/critique by the eminent composer (and sometimes free improviser) Gavin Bryars: “[P]‌ieces always started tentatively, something big in the middle, and then finished quietly.”4 Our explanation is that coordination problems at the beginning of pieces cause tentative playing as musicians search for equilibria under conditions of limited musical information. As the music progresses there is more time for musicians to signal their intentions and preferences, thus making for easier coordination and allowing “something big” to happen in the middle of performance. Quiet and spare finishes make it easier to coordinate on an ending because details are easier to hear and there is more time for deliberation. Bryars describes a way of coordinating a simple narrative arc structure. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with a piece that takes this shape, indeed its prevalence as a common practice probably shows its strength as a vehicle for musical communication. If, however, a group is unable to achieve other forms and structures, we view this as a coordination problem.

Equilibria are often easier to achieve when players coordinate by playing one type of texture or musical gesture: all fast, all slow, all dense, all sparse, all high, all low, all extended techniques, all pulse-based rhythms, all turbulent free rhythms, all in one tonal center, all atonal. As with Bryars’s large-scale structural critique, these textures or gestures are not problematic in and of themselves. We view all of them as musically useful and potentially very effective ways of achieving high-quality equilibria. We see such monotextural equilibria as problematic only when the equilibria become “locked-in” as players are unable to find alternative means of coordination, or when such equilibria become the default means for a group to coordinate.

As one group of musicians improvises together through many performances, players begin to recognize the musical tendencies and improvising vocabulary of other (p. 402) players in the group. The musical vocabularies of players in the group become a structure for coordination as musical actions are more easily predicted and expectations fulfilled, or subverted, based on past musical experiences. For many players, this aspect of group playing can be quite satisfying and desirable. Take as an example the Schlippenbach Trio, a group that has been playing together for over forty years. Their creative intensity and inventiveness seem undiminished by time. On the contrary, each player in this group is able to effectively use his knowledge of the other players to create and release musical tension and to predict and reinforce the actions of the others. Their commitment to heurism and dialogue prevents them from falling into cliché.

On the other hand, for some groups familiarity can breed stagnation and lock-in if predictable patterns are relied upon too consistently in the achievement of coordination. This can cause players to stop searching or to stop listening as intensely as they might otherwise. Once again, we do not view the emergence and accumulation of such vocabularies and group musical tendencies as inherently inferior, but they can be problematic when they become the only means by which players coordinate. Perhaps as a way to avoid this problem, musicians like Derek Bailey seem to want to play with the largest and most diverse possible range of players and place a high value on unfamiliarity and differences in background and approach. In an interview in Jazziz magazine, Bailey explains his viewpoint:

There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility with a partner. Otherwise, what are you improvising for? What are you improvising with or around? You’ve got to find somewhere where you can work. If there are no difficulties, it seems to me that there’s pretty much no point in playing. I find that the things that excite me are trying to make something work. And when it does work, it’s the most fantastic thing. Maybe the most obvious analogy would be the grit that produces the pearl in an oyster, or some shit like that.5

We agree that the presence of aesthetic or interpersonal tension, adversity, or friction can be an important and useful factor in producing valuable musical outcomes. Moreover, it stands to reason that the larger the differences in what musicians bring to collaborative, free improvisation, the larger the set of ideas, approaches, and abilities that will be available for music making. In other words, more diversity in the musical background of musicians increases the potential benefit from coordination. The downside is that without shared musical and cultural experiences, musicians may find it more difficult to communicate and coordinate their ideas, approaches, and abilities into a musical whole. Musical signals and references will be harder to interpret compared to a situation in which the musicians share a common musical background. Taken to extremes, both cases—improvising with players sharing highly similar backgrounds as opposed to very different backgrounds—represent a degree of risk with regard to the achievement of high-quality equilibria. We return to this issue in the section Solutions to Coordination Problems in Free Improvisation.

(p. 403) When musicians have invested thousands of hours in achieving virtuosity, the temptation to display that virtuosity can be overwhelming. The openness of freely improvised music seems to make it especially susceptible to virtuosic display, and this is compounded by the tradition of improvised music that places a premium on uniqueness and technical innovation (perhaps an inheritance from the jazz tradition and also an artifact of modernism) in individual musicians’ vocabularies. In addition, there is a potentially distracting kinesthetic reward to performing a difficult physical feat. For instance, a trumpet player who has learned to use circular breathing may decide to use this technique as often as possible just because she can do it and because it feels good. Continual circular breathing is not a problem in and of itself if it maintains a musical connection with the choices made by other players. It certainly will become a problem, for example, if it limits other players in trying to coordinate on a more sparse or open musical texture.

By contrast, a lack of technical ability could be an impediment to coordination. A musician’s ability to hear and react to the sounds of other players is always governed by the limitations of hearing and instrumental technique. In a group of three musicians, if two players are playing very fast, the third player need not go along with them, but if she lacks the technical ability to play fast, then that option is not open to her, nor is the possibility of an all-fast group equilibrium. Similarly, if a group spontaneously coordinates on a series of simple, repeated harmonies, a player’s inability to hear those harmonic relationships does not prevent her from making a valuable contribution, but it does preclude her ability to coordinate with the group on the basis of shared harmonic structure.

Just as some musicians build up virtuosic technique, others develop elaborate aesthetic and philosophical viewpoints that can have a negative effect on coordination. In the early 1990s, the British musician Django Bates appeared at the Vancouver International Jazz festival. One of the performances included an opportunity for audience members to ask questions. One person in the audience asked why Bates did not perform regularly with a list of what were then the leading lights of the European free-improv scene. Bates said simply, “Because you can’t do this,” and then walked to the piano and played a C major chord. Following this, he explained that for some musicians, free improvisation meant that references from many pre-existing musical forms were somehow forbidden and that he found this kind of restriction unattractive and frustrating. Indeed, there are many players active in free playing who seem averse to coordination on conventional harmonic or rhythmic devices derived from other forms of music. We see this approach as having a negative impact on coordination. While it may limit risk by constraining musical vocabulary, this prescriptive approach also eliminates many potential high-quality equilibria, essentially preventing people of differing viewpoints from engaging fully in a musical dialogue.

The obverse of the aforementioned problem can also be a serious coordination problem. Where players have a significant investment in competency within a particular style or genre, they may have difficulty leaving behind the vocabulary or performance practices attached to that genre. For instance, if a group of musicians includes three jazz players and one player whose primary field is romantic piano repertoire, the majority of players who are schooled in jazz can easily coordinate on a swinging rhythmic (p. 404) vocabulary that will exclude the pianist. Of course it would be fine for these players to coordinate on swing rhythms for a while and have the pianist either sit out or juxtapose other rhythms, but if the jazz players allow the swinging approach to dominate, the pianist may be unable to contribute fully. In order to realize the full potential of the group music, players may be required to compromise some of the more comfortable or common aspects of their own musical vocabulary. For many players, this impetus to find new ways of playing is precisely what makes free playing attractive.

In addition to the musical concerns just noted, interpersonal tensions, mistrust, or negative feelings can have an adverse affect on coordination. Of course such issues would have an impact on any kind of group performance, but because improvised music depends primarily upon the quality of interaction between musicians and their willingness to enter into dialogue with each other, emotional states are especially important. Some degree of tension is perhaps desirable and makes interactions livelier, but in more extreme cases such tension can shut down musical dialogue.

In our experience, freely improvising large ensembles, even those made up of exceptional musicians, rarely produce great music when all musicians are improvising simultaneously. One problem is that the human brain seems to have difficulty in simultaneously keeping track of more than three distinct musical expressions.6 Without the ability to hear and therefore interact, even otherwise great improvising musicians will not be able to coordinate their musical choices. There exist several solutions to this problem, involving constraints on the kinds of interaction allowed within a group. One is to intersperse small group improvising within a large ensemble composition. Another is to engage in “conduction,” a technique pioneered by Butch Morris, in which a conductor signals, in the moment, which musicians will be playing and what constraints will be placed on their musical choices. Many composers have utilized sections of freely improvised music within larger works or have designed scores or directions that aid coordination. We recognize the potential musical value of such external coordinating mechanisms, but will not consider interactions between composers, conductors, scores, and improvisers in the context of this chapter.

Finally, there is the problem of multiple motivations for musicians connected with improvised music making. These are not unique to improvised music by any means. For instance, audience approval, peer and critical approval, commercial success (rare for improvisers), performances at prestigious venues, or with famous musicians certainly can generate feelings of well-being for most musicians. None of these has an inherently negative effect on improvisation, but where these considerations become primary motivations, there is obvious potential for trouble as extra-musical concerns usurp artistic vision.

Purposes and Benefits

We have argued above that freely improvised musical performance is subject to multiple problems of coordination. Why then do musicians choose to do it? What are the (p. 405) offsetting benefits of free improvisation? What makes free improvisation a viable form of music making?

In a workshop during the Vancouver International Jazz Festival some years ago, the great improvising bassist, Barre Phillips, made the following case for free improvisation. He started with the question of why he played music. His answer was that it was a way for him to achieve transcendence. On the basis of his extensive background in both classical and jazz, Phillips observed that to achieve transcendence playing Mozart requires multiple decades of training in the music vocabulary of Mozart, and that a similar long period of study is required to achieve transcendence playing bebop. In his view, a virtue of free improvisation is that practitioners could attempt to achieve transcendence with whatever musical vocabulary they currently possessed.

An interesting follow-up to Phillips’s view is contained in Alex Ross’s book, Listen to This. In an interview with classical pianists Mitsuko Uchida and Richard Goode, co-directors of Marlboro Music, Ross includes the following discussion about recruiting students:

When I asked Goode to define what qualities he and Uchida were looking for, he said, “A certain technical excellence is a prerequisite. But you also listen for urgency, emotional reality. Maybe that is the primary thing in the end. I guess you could call it ‘musicality.’ You can often hear it right away. There’s a story that when Murray Perahia auditioned for Marlboro he played the C-Minor Impromptu of Schubert, which begins with fortissimo Gs.” Goode imitated the sound. “And right after that Horszowski supposedly turned to Serkin and said, ‘Let’s take him.’ ” Uchida puts it in her pithy way: “As a rule, the imaginative ones are lacking the technique and the ones that have good technique haven’t got a clue. But there are exceptions to the rule, and we try to snap them up.”7

“Urgency, emotional reality, musicality”; free improvisation is perhaps the only western music tradition that values these qualities unconditionally, regardless of musical vocabulary and technique.

Edwin Prévost sees free improvisation as having two central purposes: heurism and dialogue.

Improvisation is a practical and secular method of making contact with the flow of existence. It is the place where the very stuff of things can be affected. The contrast with a more formal music (for example string quartet playing) is fundamental, although both may strive for a similar sense of being to enliven their work. The musicians playing a string quartet piece give purpose to a work through performance. Improvising finds purpose of performance through investigation of sonic materials and the testing of human responses.8

We see the heuristic process of improvised music making as having a strong personal benefit. For many musicians and listeners, a rush of pleasure and excitement accompanies the discovery of new sounds, whether made by the individual, other members of the group, or in combination. The potential for the discovery of new sonic materials is (p. 406) enhanced through group interaction as individual players react and strain to both integrate with and affect the course of an improvisation.

In the preceding quote, we see two other important purposes and benefits in improvised music making. First, the “testing of human responses,” to which Prévost refers, is central to our understanding of the benefits that are derived through free improvisation. David Brooks suggests that the need for social interaction is a central motivating force in society. In his book, The Social Animal, Brooks surveys and synthesizes a large and diverse body of research on the subject of human interaction.9 He suggests that the most important and significant social interactions, as well as many important cognitive processes, occur on an unconscious level. He refers to these unconscious processes as “level-one” thinking and conscious cognition as “level-two.” Level-one cognition gathers massive quantities of sense perception data from the environment, especially subtle physical and emotional signals from others. It produces raw emotional responses and reactions, searches for patterns, and does some generalized filtering of and “fuzzy” thinking about this data. Level-two cognition comprises conscious analytic, logical, choice-making, and problem solving in large part based on level-one processes. Brooks suggests that we often attribute choices and outcomes of choices to level-two thinking even when such choices are probably made, or at least heavily influenced by, level-one processes. The more we become aware of level-one processes and their origins and motivations, the better we are able to use level-two thinking to predict and understand the thoughts, actions, and emotions of others and to control and modulate our own.

In improvised music, level-one processes are extremely important. The sheer speed and volume of musical stimuli in improvised music precludes extensive level-two analysis and judgment. Impulses for musical action primarily stem from level-one communications and interactions between players. Successful improvisers are musicians who are comfortable with allowing level-one impulses to govern their course of action and over time hone their ability to rely on these impulses while making very fast and efficient level-two decisions about them. In this way, we see free improvisation as a kind of training ground for level-one communication among individuals and the interaction between level-one and level-two states of consciousness within an individual.

It is interesting to note that following very successful improvisations, it is often difficult for the musicians to remember the specifics of the music that was played. The feeling remains, but not the notes. We see this as evidence for the primary role of level-one communication in improvisation. Indeed, in our experience as players, overtly analytical thinking or conscious and continuous assessment of the music often results in a disconnection with the music, a lapse in listening, and a delay in response time. These observations are consistent with recent research in which the brains of jazz musicians were scanned while they were improvising. According to brain researcher (and jazz musician) Charles Limb:

During improvisation, the prefrontal cortex of the brain undergoes an interesting shift in activity, in which a broad area called the lateral prefrontal region shuts down, essentially so you have a significant inhibition of your prefrontal cortex. These areas (p. 407) are involved in conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of actions you are about to implement. In the meantime we saw another area of the prefrontal cortex—the medial prefrontal cortex—turn on. This is the focal area of the brain that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical narrative.10

Music seems to have its own repertoire of feeling and its own infinitely subtle emotional vocabulary. In their influential article on emotional intelligence, Salovey and Mayer define “emotion” as follows:

We view emotions as organized responses, crossing the boundaries of many psychological subsystems, including the physiological, cognitive, motivational, and experimental systems. Emotions typically arise in response to an event, either internal or external, that has a positively or negatively valenced meaning for the individual. … We view the organized response of emotions as adaptive and as something that can potentially lead to a transformation of personal and social interaction into an enriching experience.11

An improvising musician experiments through sound to discover her own unique musical-emotional vocabulary in relation to others. This is not a symbolic vocabulary where sounds stand for feelings but rather the sounds and feelings are unified in a single motivation and musical gesture. We view Prévost’s “testing of human responses” through the creation of group improvisation as a fundamentally level-one activity. We see the impetus for musical action as primarily emotive where such action proceeds from a kind of emotional supra-consciousness that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “flow.”12 This is a state of absorption in an activity where thought and action seem to occur effortlessly and inevitably and where distinctions between physical, emotional, and cognitive processes are blurred.

We think of musical equilibria as sonic spaces of level-one flow and interaction. The rich emotional interactions and expressions in these musical spaces can be highly pleasurable, troubling, uplifting, frustrating, exciting. Prévost mentions “making contact with the flow of existence.”13 We view this as an essentially transcendent experience; a flow of emotional and musical creation in which players feel that they have achieved a state of consciousness beyond what they are normally able to achieve. This could obviously happen without group interaction, but we feel that the interpersonal interaction with other musicians and the intensity of thought and action required to make music in the moment promotes this kind of supra-conscious experience.

Of course other personal benefits of free improvisation are possible. The act of creating improvised music can be an existential and possibly even political act of self-definition. In creating music in the moment, the player affirms her creative power and the inherent value of her creative acts and ideas. This is true in any kind of art making, but in improvised music, confidence in one’s ideas and clarity of communication of (p. 408) intention is key to successful creation. In the context of a group interaction, the player who lacks confidence and assurance of musical gesture is unlikely to have the ability to change an equilibrium or to generate a new one.

Solutions to Coordination Problems in Free Improvisation

Two obvious solutions to coordination problems are solo playing (exclusively) and giving dictatorial power to an individual player in an improvising ensemble. These can be musically effective but at the cost of giving up the joy of interactive playing and the musical brilliance made possible through collective intelligence. For many improvising musicians these costs are sufficiently burdensome to rule out these options.

Another approach is to solve the particularly difficult coordination problems prevalent at the beginnings and endings of pieces with written material, leaving all other musical choices (the vast majority of choices) up to the in-the-moment decisions of the players. This approach works well, but is still too restrictive for some improvising musicians.

In our view, more fundamental solutions depend primarily on open communication, trust, the ability to make selfless choices, unconstrained and easy negotiation over musical direction, introspection based on internal responses to musical stimuli, the courage to play with intention and vulnerability, and listening skills including the ability to hear nuance, to hear emotional intention, and to simultaneously hear subtle musical details and macro structural elements. We do not claim that this particular listing of attributes is unique to us. We suspect most improvising musicians, if asked, would come up with a similar list.14

We were somewhat surprised, however, to discover that recent work by social scientists, from a variety of disciplines, on high-functioning group behavior in non-musical pursuits has generated a strikingly similar list of attributes. In summarizing this research, David Brooks reports that groups composed of members with the following level-one talents are more productive than other groups composed of members with better level-two abilities:15

  • Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

  • Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

  • Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

  • Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

  • Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of (p. 409) transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task, or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

Finally, free improvisation itself can be viewed as a solution to the coordination problem involved in collective music making among musicians from widely divergent traditions. Our experience as improvisers in Vancouver, Canada, sheds some light on the trade-off between improvising with players with similar backgrounds (easier to coordinate musical choices) and players with very different backgrounds (richer set of musical ideas to coordinate). In recent years, Vancouver has become a popular destination for immigrants from Asia. Some of these immigrants are amazing virtuosi in the music and musical instruments of their original cultures. Vancouver is small enough and open enough that opportunities for interaction across musical traditions are common, and we have both participated in such music making. Both authors have a strong background in jazz. Making music with master musicians in classical music from China or Vietnam, for example, initially poses the problem of what kind of music to play. Given our preexisting musical commitments and predilections, it is not practical for us to spend years learning their music traditions. It is equally impractical for them to learn the musical vocabulary needed to play the music of Thelonious Monk or Ornette Coleman. Free improvisation has proven to be a highly productive and rewarding place to meet musically. The idea that free improvisation can be a lingua franca for musicians from around the world is stated explicitly in the following quote from Anthony Braxton:

At this point in time, we can talk of a global community of global musics. Part of the significance of the open improvisational music has been its ability to provide a forum for interactive experiences for people from different parts of the planet, which lends itself to transglobal, transvibrational experiences.16

Improvisation Informs Economics

The creation of knowledge in economics, as in knowledge creation in all disciplines, is enhanced by improvisational skills. Improvisation, creativity, curiosity, the ability to make connections across empirical observations and across analyses—all are bound together in multiple ways and reinforce one another. We take this as a given. Our focus is on the pedagogical role that improvisation can play in determining real-world outcomes having to do with economic and personal well-being (i.e., material wealth and happiness).

Consider first the emerging field of the “economics of happiness.” A central finding in this literature is the strong correlation between an individual’s personal sense of well-being and the quality of her social interactions. Surprisingly (to economists) these interactions statistically dominate the effects of traditional economic variables such as income and wealth.

(p. 410) Richard Layard provides an extensive review of the happiness literature and extrapolates those features of life that have been shown empirically to make the biggest difference to our happiness.17 Foremost among these are family relationships, financial situation, work, community and friends, and health. Some of these—family relationships, community and friends—fall directly into the category of social interactions. We will show that social interactions are also critical to successful outcomes in finances, work, and health. A weakness of the economic analysis of happiness is the lack of discussion on how to achieve and improve high-quality social interactions. Brooks, for example, laments that “We don’t teach this ability [level-one skills] in school—to harmonize patterns, to seek limerence, to make friends. But the happy life is defined by these sorts of connections, and the unhappy life is defined by a lack of them.”18 We propose that the interpersonal skills and interactive level-one processes acquired and improved through participation in free improvisation have the potential to improve outcomes in the features of life identified by Layard.

Layard suggests that moral and emotional education, or what he calls “education of the spirit,” is a key factor in increasing the happiness of societies.19 According to Layard, “controlled trials have shown that well-designed courses in emotional intelligence have significant effects on children’s mood and on their consideration for others; these effects are still evident two years later.”20 Among other important aims for this kind of education, Layard includes the appreciation of beauty, understanding others and how to socialize, and understanding and managing your feelings as key components. The negotiation of values and ideas and building of trust are also included as primary factors affecting happiness in family, work, and community relationships.

We view Layard’s aims as strongly overlapping with Brooks’s ideas about the importance of level-one cognition and quality personal interactions within groups. As we pointed out earlier, successful free improvisation in music requires a significant degree of trust as a player makes choices based on the assumption that others in a group will willingly and meaningfully interact with her ideas. It also requires the ability to interpret the intentions and actions of others in relationship both to personal goals and ideas and a shared group outcome. We argue that free improvisation in music (and possibly improvisation in other art disciplines) has obvious pedagogical applications in modeling and teaching these abilities and should be a part of the core curriculum wherever they are taught.

When economists try to understand why some individuals are wealthier than others, their analytic and empirical focus has traditionally been on measures of human capital (e.g., health, educational attainment, IQ, labor market experience). Despite having access to detailed data sets on these human capital variables, economists have only been able to explain a small portion of the variation in labor market success across workers by using this approach. We suggest that what may be missing in the empirical analysis is the inclusion of more recently identified human capital variables associated with level-one cognition.

The new work on human capital as summarized in Brooks concludes that most people work in groups; group efforts are extremely productive compared to individual efforts; (p. 411) the key to successful group effort in the labor force is the ability to coordinate effectively; and the ability to coordinate effectively is determined by the acquisition of level-one skills.21 People who are most successful and happy at work, in communities, and in families are people who have strong level-one communication abilities and who allow level-two decisions and analysis to be affected and informed by this more subtle level of cognition.

Modern production technologies have substituted computers and other capital goods for labor in the production of goods in a way that has lowered the productivity of many workers and, along with globalization of the labor market, caused large increases in inequality.22 In contrast, group production is an area in which labor productivity has remained high. Moreover, the most important element in making teamwork highly productive is the ability of team members to coordinate with each other. According to Brooks, recent research suggests that working groups display the highest levels of collective intelligence when group members are good at reading and understanding emotions and intentions, evaluating each other’s strengths, and predicting tendencies, when they take turns in taking on leadership roles, and when the contributions and inputs of individuals are managed fluidly.23 He concludes that functioning effectively in a group “requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.” We see all of these abilities as critical for coordinating high-quality equilibria in improvised music. We are not making a case for effortless or automatic transference of qualities and abilities learned from improvisation to other aspects of an individual’s life, but we are suggesting that improvised music making has the potential to act as a scaffolding for the exploration and teaching of these important abilities.

What about health? At first glance, it may seem unlikely that free improvisation could have an affect on health, but in fact there is growing evidence that the quality of social interaction and the stability of social networks has a significant positive impact on health outcomes. Citing a broad spectrum of health studies (including Patrick and Wickizer, and Ebrahim and Smith), Lomas suggests that measures to increase social cohesion (a term he uses interchangeably with social capital) play a significant role on a health “intervention continuum.”24 According to Lomas, social cohesion has a measurable, positive outcome on rates of disease and mortality and “interventions to increase social support and/or social cohesion in a community are at least as worthy of exploration as improved access or routine medical care.”25 In the case of heart disease, the positive influence of social cohesion statistically outweighed the availability of free medical treatment and was nearly as important as drug therapies. More recent work has shown the positive influence of friendship on lifespan.26 Again, we would argue that participating in free improvisation enhances the ability of people to engage in successful social interactions and to become active in social networks.

We are not aware of empirical research into the effects of improvisation on interpersonal emotional interactions. Nevertheless, we predict a strong potential for improvisation to help people acquire the qualities and skills that both Layard and Brooks see as (p. 412) key to happiness and productivity. We can offer strong anecdotal evidence on the positive effects of improvisation in educational settings. One of the authors has taught many free improvisation workshops for a wide variety of participants at elementary and secondary schools, colleges, universities, community groups, and academic conferences. These workshops are based on the work of British improviser John Stevens. His book, Search and Reflect, presents a series of games, exercises, and compositions for introducing people to improvisation.27 Participants can approach these activities with a variety of musical backgrounds and skill levels from ten-year old elementary-school students who have been playing the clarinet for a month to instrumental performance faculty at major universities. In these workshops participants begin with very limited improvisational choices and as their listening abilities, musical vocabularies, and confidence grow, they make more complex sets of choices and interact more with other musicians. Eventually, all restrictions are removed and players improvise freely. In many cases people who previously declared that they couldn’t or wouldn’t improvise can progress very quickly to free playing in small groups. They meet with considerable success in terms of understanding the interactions of the group and in producing music of a quality that is satisfying to them. Participants almost always report an increased ability to listen to and interpret the sounds and intentions of other players, a greater trust in their abilities to make a valuable contribution to the group music, and an increase in general confidence. In other words, they begin to focus on the kinds of interactions that contribute to happiness, health, successful relationships, and effective group work. Moreover, we have observed significant progress in these interpersonal skills in the space of only one or two sessions.

Of course the same abilities could be learned in other forms of group music making or other group activities. What are the advantages of learning these skills through free improvisation? First, the feedback is immediate. In the absence of externally imposed coordination, interpersonal interactions are particularly meaningful, instructive, intense, and enriching. Second, there is no requirement for expensive equipment or location, or extensive specialist training for students. Musical improvisation is spontaneous and allows level-one skill learning to occur on a relatively circumscribed timescale. For most people it is also fun.

Concluding Remarks

Understanding improvisation as a path-dependent process helps us think about the purposes, problems, and solutions in this form of music making and to see it in relationship to other musical traditions. The skills leading to successful free improvisation in music are the same skills that enrich personal interactions in all situations, and we argue that the practice of free improvisation could be a model environment for people to explore, understand, acquire, and improve these abilities. The concepts of path dependence and level-one/level-two states of consciousness are key to understanding (p. 413) the critical role of coordination and communication in both musical improvisation and economic relationships.


Earlier drafts of this essay have benefited from comments from Cliff Bekar, Coat Cooke, Gregory Dow, Bruce Freedman, Brian Krauth, Guy Immega, Sherrill King, Dylan van der Schyff, Raymon Torchinsky, and Simon Woodcock. All remaining errors, omissions, and confusions are solely the responsibility of the authors.


Anstead, Alicia. “Inner Sparks.” Scientific American 304, no. 5 (2011): 84–87.Find this resource:

    Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.Find this resource:

      Ball, Philip. The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

        Brock, W., and S. Durlauf. “Discrete Choice with Social Interactions.” Review of Economic Studies 68 (2001): 235–260.Find this resource:

          Brock, W., and S. Durlauf. “Interactions-Based Models.” In Handbook of Econometrics, vol. 5, edited by J. Heckman and E. Leamer, 3297–3380. Amsterdam: North Holland, 2000.Find this resource:

            Brooks, David. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. New York: Random House, 2011.Find this resource:

              (p. 415) Brooks, David. “The New Humanism.” New York Times, March 7, 2011.

              Brooks, David. “Amy Chua Is a Wimp.” New York Times, January 17, 2011.

              Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.Find this resource:

                David, Paul. “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY.” American Economic Review 75, no. 2 (1985): 332–337.Find this resource:

                  Eaton, B. Curtis, Krishna Pendakur, and Clyde G. Reed. “Socializing, Shared Experience and Popular Culture.” (unpublished paper, 2000).

                  Ebrahim, S., and G. Davey Smith. “Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials of Multiple Risk Factor Interventions for Preventing Coronary Artery Disease.” British Medical Journal 314 (1997): 1666–1674.Find this resource:

                    Freeman, Phil. “The Grit That Produces The Pearl.” Jazziz 19, no. 3 (March 2002): 42–43.Find this resource:

                      Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ for Character, Health and Lifelong Achievement. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.Find this resource:

                        Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.Find this resource:

                          Krugman, Paul. “Degrees and Dollars.” New York Times, March 6, 2011.

                          Layard, Richard. Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                            Lewis, George E. A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                              Lomas, Jonathan. “Social Capital and Health: Implications for Public Health and Epidemiology.” Social Science and Medicine 47 (1998): 1181–1188.Find this resource:

                                Parker-Pope, Tara. “What Are Friends For? A Longer Life.” New York Times, April 21, 2009.

                                Patrick, D. L., and T. M. Wickizer. “Community and Health.” In Society and Health, edited by B. C. Amick, S. Levine, A. R. Tarlov, and C. D. Walsh, 46–92. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

                                  Prévost, Edwin. No Sound Is Innocent: AMM and the Practice of Self-Invention, Meta-musical Narratives, Essays. Harlow, Essex, UK: Copula, 1995.Find this resource:

                                    Ross, Alex. Listen to This. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.Find this resource:

                                      Salovey, Peter, and John D. Mayer. “Emotional Intelligence.” Imagination, Cognition, and Personality 9 (1990): 185–211.Find this resource:

                                        Stevens, John. Search and Reflect. London: Community Music Ltd., 1985. (p. 416) Find this resource:


                                          (1.) Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), 83.

                                          (2.) Paul David, “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY,” The American Economic Review 75, no. 2 (1985): 332–337.

                                          (3.) The full mathematical exposition of the model, along with supporting simulations, can be found in B. Curtis Eaton, Krishna Pendakur, and Clyde G. Reed, “Socializing, Shared Experience and Popular Culture” (unpublished, 2000, available at, albeit in that paper path dependence is driven by economic agents coordinating on consumption experiences, while in this chapter path dependence is driven by freely improvising musicians coordinating on musical experiences. For related formal modeling of path-dependent processes, see W. Brock and S. Durlauf, “Discrete Choice with Social Interactions,” Review of Economic Studies 68 (2001): 235–260; W. Brock and S. Durlauf, “Interactions-Based Models,” in Handbook of Econometrics, vol. 5, edited by J. Heckman and E. Leamer, 3297–3380. (Amsterdam: North Holland, 2000).

                                          (4.) Quoted in Bailey, Improvisation, 114.

                                          (5.) Quoted in Phil Freeman, “The Grit That Produces The Pearl,” Jazziz 19, no. 3 (March 2002), 42.

                                          (6.) Philip Ball, The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 154.

                                          (7.) Alex Ross, Listen to This (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 255–256.

                                          (8.) Edwin Prévost, No Sound Is Innocent: AMM and the Practice of Self-Invention, Meta-musical Narratives, Essays (Harlow, Essex, UK: Copula, 1995), 107.

                                          (9.) David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2011). Also see the discussion of “System 1” and “System 2” modes of thinking in Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

                                          (10.) Quoted in Alicia Anstead, “Inner Sparks,” Scientific American 304, no. 5 (2011): 86.

                                          (11.) Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, “Emotional Intelligence,” Imagination, Cognition, and Personality 9 (1990): 186.

                                          (12.) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper and Row, 1990).

                                          (14.) Our list has benefited from discussions with Oregon based drummer/improviser Dave Storrs.

                                          (15.) David Brooks, “The New Humanism,” New York Times, March 7, 2011,

                                          (16.) Quoted in George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 502.

                                          (17.) Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005).

                                          (19.) Layard, Happiness, 201. See also Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ for Character, Health and Lifelong Achievement (New York: Bantam Books, 1995).

                                          (21.) David Brooks, “Amy Chua Is a Wimp,” New York Times, January 17, 2011.; and Brooks, “The New Humanism.”

                                          (22.) Paul Krugman, “Degrees and Dollars,” New York Times, March 6, 2011.

                                          (24.) See D. L. Patrick and T. M. Wickizer, “Community and Health,” in Society and Health, edited by B. C. Amick, S. Levine, A. R. Tarlov, and C. D. Walsh (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 46–92; and S. Ebrahim and G. Davey Smith, “Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials of Multiple Risk Factor Interventions for Preventing Coronary Artery Disease,” British Medical Journal 314 (1997): 1666–1674; Jonathan Lomas, “Social Capital and Health: Implications for Public Health and Epidemiology,” Social Science and Medicine 47 (1998): 1181–1188.

                                          (26.) Tara Parker-Pope, “What Are Friends For? A Longer Life,” New York Times, April 21, 2009.

                                          (27.) John Stevens, Search and Reflect (London: Community Music Ltd, 1985).