Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

Improvisation and Cognition

Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

Improvisation and Cognition

Article excerpt

From a recent literature review, I have noticed that a wide variety of skills and musical activities implemented in elementary and secondary schools fall under the category of "improvisation". However, for the professional practitioner of improvised forms of music, improvisation is a rather specific concept. Clarification on this matter is important. Misinterpreting the concept of improvisation is overlooking what improvisation can contribute to the learner's musical development. This discussion assumes that improvisation is a skill that (a) can be learnt, taught, and nurtured; (b) is not style-specific; and (c) is a form of music making as opposed to a means to an end (as it is not rare to read about the benefits of improvisation in other areas of musical training). It has been argued that improvisation reinforces sight-reading, music analysis, and performance of prepared repertoire. Although this is all true, I argue that the purpose of improvisation is to make music. Improvisation is a significant contribution to music curricula not because it improves other areas of training, but because it allows musicians to experience music making in a unique way.

Often some activities such as jamming, score-free playing, sound exploration, and self-expression through sound are treated as synonyms of improvisation. All these forms of music making possess unarguable musical and pedagogical value and they are improvisatory to a certain extent, at least in that the material performed is not notated and the duration of a piece is not predetermined. However, what makes improvisation a unique form of musical intelligence is the simultaneous combination and application on an instrument and in real time of three cognitive skills: (a) decision making, (b) anticipation, and (c) structural thought.

For the sake of discussing these skills, I will break them down acknowledging that in actual practice they take the form of one composite cognitive process. Although each of these three skills is not unknown to the musician, their simultaneous combination remains exclusive to improvisation. For instance, the sense of anticipation is applied in sight reading, but no decision making takes place. Similarly, a performer is expected to be familiar with the structure of a piece anticipating, its sections during performance, but makes no decisions over content. On the other hand, the composer applies decision making in every step of music making, but the sense of anticipation does not happen in real time, plus the decisions are not realized on an instrument but as abstract thought on paper. It is important to clarify that there is no hierarchical order to these three skills; therefore, they can or should be learnt simultaneously or in any sequence. Another clarification to make is that creativity, often associated as an essential feature of improvisation, is not what defines the skill per se. Some forms of music making involve the creation of ostinati patterns as it happens in some forms of rock music, or even some Kodaly classroom activities; also Bobby McFerrin's incorporation of the audience on spontaneously created layers is another outstanding example of this technique that combines spontaneous creativity, and pattern performing. I would suggest that the word "jamming" is more appropriate in these cases given the type of music cognition that these activities require. In these forms of performance decision making happens at an initial level when creating the pattern; since this is repeated on and on, decision making does not remain active. Similarly, the sense of anticipation transforms itself in a sense of presence. As I mentioned before, this kind of music activity is of great value; in fact I would argue that it is essential as a prior step to improvisation. So, let's have a look at the skills that specifically define the construct of improvisation. The following are observations I made working with middle school, high school, and first year undergraduate students. …

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