Academic journal article Psychomusicology

Towards a Cognitive-Scientific Research Program for Improvisation: Theory and an Experiment

Academic journal article Psychomusicology

Towards a Cognitive-Scientific Research Program for Improvisation: Theory and an Experiment

Article excerpt

Despite often being conceived as a spontaneous and creative mode of performance, improvisation is predicated on prior knowledge. What characterizes this knowledge, and how is it represented or recalled differently as compared with other modes of music making? Asking about knowledge and trying to distinguish improvisation as a distinct performance process can locate research questions within the theoretical frameworks of cognitive science, but it is not clear how to make such questions experimentally accessible. Differences arising from music-analytical versus cognitive conceptions of improvisation are explored to provide a theoretical framework compatible with experimentation. Experimental research could concern itself with how the embodied interface between performer and instrument, when manipulated, invokes different cognitive processes of music making, helping to describe the cognitive characteristics of various modes of music performance. Here, an experiment is reported that synthesizes previous techniques used to analyze improvisations with experimental strategies from the neuroscientific literature aimed at differentiating performance processes within a given improviser. Jazz pianists improvised monophonically over backing tracks in a familiar and unfamiliar key as well as with their right and left hands. Among other findings, in some of the less familiar performance situations, participants relied more on diatonic pitches and produced more predictable improvisations as measured by entropy and conditional entropy. The nature of the different underlying processes and knowledge at play under these different conditions is explored, and future research directions to better describe them are identified, including incorporating motor theories of perception.

Keywords: improvisation, cognition, musical performance, music analysis

Despite often being considered a creative and spontaneous activity, musical improvisation is predicated on acquired knowledge (Ashley, 2009; Pressing, 1988). Improvisers may be creating something that is new or unplanned according to a particular set of structural-analytic criteria (e.g., the notes are new or the chords were not chosen beforehand), but they also have prior knowledge that enables their music making. How can what improvisers know be characterized? How might the nature or use of such knowledge differ when the same musician is improvising as compared with playing from memory, or when the same improviser plays in different performance contexts? Asking questions about a musician's knowledge can locate the topic of improvisation within the theoretical frameworks of cognitive science, but it is not clear how one might frame these questions so as to make them experimentally accessible. If improvisation is, by its definition, free, how could experimen- tation help to systematize its processes?

Previous research has approached these questions in few differ- ent ways. Many analytical methods have been used to examine transcribed and recorded improvisations to infer properties of their style and the underlying cognition of the processes that created them (e.g., Järvinen, 1995; Järvinen & Toiviainen, 2000; Pfleiderer & Frieler, 2010). These studies provide valuable insight into the processes of improvisation, but could go further by examining improvisations produced in the laboratory under a set of experi- mentally designed systematically varying conditions. Functional neuroimaging studies have had musicians produce improvisations in the laboratory to assess differences in performance process (memorized performance vs. improvisation) through measuring differences in brain activation (Bengtsson, Csíkszentmihályi, & Ullén, 2007; Berkowitz & Ansari, 2008, 2010; Limb & Braun, 2008), but could go further by not treating improvisation as a single kind of process. These two approaches could be usefully combined to form an experimental program in which improvisa- tions are produced within the laboratory under experimentally varying conditions to reveal differences in process. …

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