Specifically, a region of the top front part of the brain which is thought to be involved in problem-solving and conscious monitoring of our performance dorsolateral prefrontal cortex quiets down during improvisation. Just try it. Take a moment after warming up to do some free improv. Pick a theme, and make up some variations.
Riff off a scale. Play around with ornamentations. To that end, what exercises, books, or online resources have you found most helpful in developing your improvisation skills? Pianist Robert Levin has been championing the practice of improvisation in classical music for many years. New to the blog? And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too. Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill — one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing.
Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage. Get Started. Teaching accessories are a slippery slope.
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The spur of the moment: what jazz improvisation tells cognitive science
Most musical improvisation is social, involving the idiosyncratic contributions of two or more individuals, each interpreting and musically responding to the other s and their playing. It is spontaneous in that music is formed as it is played through moment-by-moment responses to immediate musical contexts. It is creative in that improvising musicians produce novel music each time they play that may be similar to, but is different from, any previous performance.
Finally, while masterful improvisation garners most attention and may be what comes to mind first when considering this musical practice, musical improvisation is something in which anyone can engage. From early infant-mother interactions onwards Trevarthen [ ] , all humans have the creative capacity to generate and modify patterns of sound in response to each other MacDonald et al.
Since all are musical improvisers to some extent, everybody can engage in improvisation at some level, unlike many other musical activities where specific technical skills or knowledge are required to participate. This accessibility of improvisation means it has the potential for wide-ranging application as an intervention.
These features may underlie the perceived utility of improvisation within a health care context. Although improvisation as an aesthetic activity has been studied, its potential function in relation to health, rather than that of music in general, has not. Given the psychological and structural complexity of this behaviour, a model for how improvisation in music can influence the health or wellbeing of those involved would be useful. Three considerations are crucial to this:.
What are the parameters of improvisation? For instance, in Iranian or Indian classical music only certain aspects can be spontaneously created according to relatively strict conventions Nooshin [ ] while in post-idiomatic free improvisation, players seek to avoid all reference to existing music or musical conventions each time they play Bailey [ ]. Any attempt to set out associations between improvisation and health must at the same time identify the parameters taken to constitute improvisation.
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What effects on health or wellbeing are perceived or claimed? Improvisation may be expected to have direct benefits for psychological symptoms or conditions such as depression and low mood, or physiological processes such as rehabilitation or levels of stress. Measurement may be at the level of self-report, objective assessment or biological markers. But these effects should be attributable to improvisation specifically, rather than other musical or non-musical components of a music intervention.
It is also important to know which groups are expected to garner which specific benefits. What mechanisms are understood to bring about these effects? Improvisation is typically seen as a process analogous to communication or expression; indeed this is hailed as part of its appeal across a range of educational and health related contexts.
However communication and expression have been framed in various psychological models with varied implications. These processes may be seen by theorists as either involving a transfer of information; an identification of internally consistent selves; or the construction of identities in specific social contexts Potter and Wetherell [ ]; Miller [ ]. Such varied explanations of what takes place in a communicative process have significant implications for how we are to understand influences on health from improvised musicking. If, for example, a therapist spontaneously plays a particular chord for a patient during a session, does that patient experience exactly the same association as the therapist and understand their intent; or does the patient form their own distinct perception of that configuration of sound according to an internally consistent self; or do they inevitably receive and respond to it in ways that reflect a particular understanding of self and therapist within that immediate context only?
Such implications are central to understanding how improvisation may function as a component of an intervention. In this paper, literature specifically addressing improvisation as a musical intervention to improve health is reviewed. We identify effects attributed to the unique features of improvisation and the reasoning behind any claims; and we reflect on whether the effects of improvisation are separable from those of other musical activities or from the intervention considered as a whole, presenting qualitative evidence gathered in the evaluation of such interventions. We also consider any distinctions perceived between improvisation for aesthetic goals and for therapeutic goals.
This provides an initial step towards a model based on discourse theory for how improvisation can affect specific health states positively, and indicates how a robust evidence base can be gathered towards development of interventions that harness this vital human process. In addition published works known to the authors were reviewed, and the reference lists of identified articles were checked for further relevant references. Articles were excluded if the abstract mentioned the search terms, but the study was not substantively concerned with the influence on an aspect of health or wellbeing of taking part in musical improvisation.
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One hundred and one articles were identified through this process. The characteristics of the improvisation involved were also identified. Where studies evaluated music interventions involving improvisation, they were examined for any specific measurement or conclusions regarding the improvised component of the intervention separately from the overall intervention. Rolvsjord et al. It is nevertheless central to the Creative Music Therapy founded by Nordoff and Robbins and to Psychodynamic approaches, and these are the most widely discussed in the literature on improvisation and health Trondalen and Bonde [ ].
Also, community music therapy locates the therapeutic intervention in the context of a community making music, which may involve improvisation Pavlicevic and Ansdell [ ]. Mirroring: simultaneously playing what the client is playing, as nearly as possible. Stabilising techniques grounding , holding and containing : providing ongoing stability through constant or repetitive rhythm or tonality.
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Dialoguing: understood as communication through music analogous to conversation, either on the basis of turn-taking, interjection or simultaneous input. Modelling: providing a musical idea or theme for the client to develop or respond to.
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Improvisation identified in the literature that did not involve one-to-one sessions took the form of therapist-led group improvising sessions on percussion Rickson [ ]; Burns et al. Pothoulaki et al. It is stressed that while interactive improvisation is a distinct phase within a music therapy session, it is not necessarily seen as therapeutic in itself, but explicitly as a basis for subsequent verbal dialogue and exploration Austin [ ]; Pavlicevic [ ].
Therapy involving musical improvisation has been studied in application to a wide range of groups and conditions, including patients in rehabilitation from neurological damage Aigen [ ]; Pavlicevic and Ansdell [ ] ; patients with substance use disorders Albornoz [ ] ; cancer patients Burns et al. Physical benefits are seen to accrue for patients recovering from neurological damage who take part in improvisation. Robust trials to establish these effects are generally lacking, although 34 patients with severe brain injury in rehabilitation following a coma showed improvements in the psychomotor impairments and collaborative behaviours while receiving improvisational music therapy following the Nordoff Robins approach Formisano et al.
Benefits more commonly recognised as arising from improvisation include increase of vigour and reduction of tension, stress or anxiety. For instance improvements in biological measures of these symptoms have been measured in cancer patients following group sessions of improvisational music therapy; cancer patients have also reported these benefits from music therapy in interviews, pointing specifically to aspects of their experience of improvisation Burns et al.
Amelioration of the symptoms of depressed patients, including feelings of guilt, shame or despair has also been observed following participation in improvisation Albornoz [ ]. Changes in measures of the symptoms of patients with mental disorders before and after improvisational therapy indicate that this intervention brings about improvements compared with usual treatment Gold et al. Enhanced self-esteem, self-confidence, self-awareness or emotional wellbeing in individuals following improvisational music therapy have all been pointed to as indicators of improved wellbeing Oldfield [ ]; Pavlicevic and Ansdell [ ]; Pothoulaki et al.
Although improvisational therapy has no greater effect on the symptoms of schizophrenia than other than other forms of musical intervention Mohammadi et al. A review of studies of music therapy interventions for children with ASD concluded that improvisation was one of two main techniques for this group, associated with improvements in communicative behaviours, joint attention and emotional communication Simpson and Keen [ ]. Improvisational therapy has been shown to have positive effects on interactive behaviours among children with autistic spectrum disorders ASD in comparison with usual treatment Geretsegger et al.
Randomised controlled trials in children aged 3—5 with ASD have indicated that improvisation in therapy promotes capacities for self-expression, emotional communication and social interaction to a greater extent than play therapy Kim et al. Teenage boys with ADHD have been found to benefit from music therapy, but benefits for this population from improvisational musical therapy including improved emotional lability and psychosomatic symptoms are likely to contrast with improvements that more structured musical activities can lead to, such as enhanced motor or timing skills Rickson [ ].
Other benefits have been claimed for music therapy in general, and in respect of other patient groups; for instance, improvements in the symptoms of schizophrenic patients or in relaxation among prisoners Gold et al. However those outlined above represent the key effects attributed in the literature to improvisation specifically. Improvisation is also crucially seen within music therapy as an act of self-expression whose preverbal character enables the release or expression of difficult or repressed emotions Burns et al.
Emotions are considered by therapists not only to be expressed, but to be communicated in improvisation by means of the symbolic function of musical acts during improvisation. Nevertheless, it remains unclear from the literature whether any health benefits from the act of emotional expression during therapeutic improvisation are qualified by how successfully those emotions are communicated to the therapist. Scope to express emotions may imply a freedom from conventions Gilboa et al.
Cancer patients, for example, attribute benefits from improvising to being able to express difficult feelings through this activity in a reassuring context without having to use words Pothoulaki et al.
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Aldridge [ ]. These interpretations are supported by recent findings that adult patients whose depression and anxiety symptoms improved following improvisational music therapy also showed EEG changes consistent with differences in emotional expression and affect regulation Fachner et al. A number of obstacles to identifying mechanisms for the effects of improvisation on health and well-being are raised in the literature. Improvisation is itself a complex accretion of behaviours and circumstances.
Pointing to the difficulty of transcribing improvisations from therapy, Aigen [ ] argues that specific improvisatory events may not be readily separable from the whole interaction and attributable to specific health benefits. Also, trials that have compared music therapy built round improvisational activity with other forms have shown effects in both intervention and control arms. For instance a trial comparing improvising therapy for cancer patients with music listening therapy found similar positive effects on stress from both interventions, counter to the expectation that the improvising condition would result in greater benefits Burns et al.
The literature reviewed above has examined uses of musical improvisation within therapy. Improvisation is of course more widely practiced than in therapy alone, primarily for aesthetic purposes Aldridge [ ]. To consider how the study of therapeutic improvising might inform our understanding of improvising in other contexts, it is important to establish any important ways in which practice as opposed to purpose differs across these settings.
In therapy, improvisation is undertaken to effect an interpersonal exchange, rather than a purely musical exchange, and therefore as a behaviour that is taken to reveal personal qualities Pavlicevic [ ]. In this respect, an expectation exists that any musical activity is personally meaningful. Those engaged in music-making for its own sake might not concede this about their activity; musicians outwith the treatment setting may see themselves as aiming only to form and execute music to the best of their abilities, rather than expressing or representing themselves.
Improvising is also undertaken in music therapy with the explicit expectation of follow-up, and represents part of a process for therapists rather than an end in itself. Bruscia [ ] , and listening repeatedly to recordings of improvisation between sessions to determine their significance for the client is a key element of practice for therapists Arnason [ ].
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Musicians on the other hand may not discuss their playing afterwards or seek to analyse their interaction; thus interviewees in qualitative music psychology research have spoken of how unusual it is for them to verbalise or reflect on what they do as improvisers MacDonald and Wilson [ ]. Finally, visual communication is often regarded as important though not essential within many therapeutic settings Arnason [ ] ; for instance this is an important part of the effects of improvisation for children with ASD Gold et al.
Recent qualitative psychological work on improvisation, however, suggests that the processes of aesthetic improvising may be less distinct from those of therapeutic improvising than this comparison suggests. For instance, one jazz musician described their best improvising as taking place thus:. This is strongly consistent with the idea of a connection to the unconscious. Flow experiences are recognised among improvising musicians as characteristic of successful group performance, wherein the challenges and excitement of participation create a focus on the present and a diminished awareness of an ongoing self Csikszentmihalyi [ ]; MacDonald and Wilson [ ], [ ].
For instance, in a recent qualitative study of a post-genre improvising ensemble, one improviser described difficulty playing with those musicians whose contributions she characterised as antagonistic:. In summary, while the expectations and objectives of musical improvisation are divergent between therapeutic and other contexts, the processes taking place may be strongly similar and therefore share some of their effects. In searching for literature that explicitly investigates the capacity of musical improvisation to influence health or wellbeing, only work examining its use within music therapy was identified.
The behaviours and interactions that constitute improvisation during music therapy are clearly defined by Wigram [ ]. Improvisation in music therapy is seen to have specific benefits for particular populations including the amelioration of neurological damage, improvements in mental health conditions, reductions in stress and anxiety, and improved communication and joint attention behaviours in children with ASD. Four unique characteristics of musical improvisation are identified as underlying these effects: its potential to link conscious with unconscious processes; the demands on attention of absorption in a creative process; the non-verbal social and creative interaction experienced; and the capacity for expressing difficult or repressed emotions without having to articulate these verbally.
Although the objectives for improvisation in music therapy are distinct from those for improvisation in other contexts, the musical interaction that takes place can be seen as substantively similar to that in improvisation in other contexts. Improvisation may be taken by those involved in therapy as simply part of making music in the course of the intervention. Yet, as a spontaneous, social, creative nonverbal process unfolding in real time, musical improvisation between individuals is a unique psychological phenomenon, and distinct from other areas of musical activity in a number of key respects MacDonald et al.
It might therefore be expected to have influences on health or wellbeing distinct from, or in addition to, other musical behaviours, and other components of a musical intervention. While this review has highlighted some evidence in health research to suggest particular effects of improvisation in its own right, investigation in this area appears limited.