Additional thoughts on improvisation

31 08 2015

i would like to update my previous post with some further thoughts. so i will invite the reader to read the previous entry beforehand and then continue with the following.


Further thoughts on improvisation


I would like to add a few comments in relation to the text I have written on improvisation and, once again, use another scientific understanding in order to illustrate my points.


We have seen previously that our interpretation of what listening is can vary greatly from one individual to another. And so, when considering the spectrum of practices from written/rehearsed music all the way to free improvisation via jazz and improvised soloing within set frameworks, we can see that the degree or type of listening that is required is relative to the context.

The further we go along this axis, from written music, all the way to free form, we follow a line that demands more focused and detailed listening skills, towards ‘deep listening’ and further even. We have seen that along this line that the deeper the listening, the less room for ego, and the more empathy is found in the exchange.


And so, similarly, we can apply this understanding of relativity when it comes to improvisation. Our understanding of improvisation is not always the same. There is an obvious trajectory here that can be analysed. Starting from written music, where there is no deviation, we move towards improvisation within a given framework, as expressed previously, such as in jazz, etc. And when we consider free improvisation, we move to semi-structured pieces that contain a certain degree of freedom towards a place where there is no defined framework at all, no harmonic or rhythmical predetermination. In the latter case, we could say that further improvisational skills (i.e. a wider range) are required together with more attentive listening.


So when we speak of what is improvisation, once again, it is all relative to the position we find ourselves along this axis. For most people, non-musicians or musicians who only perform written music, jazz improvisation may seem mystical or magical. However, for an experienced improviser, used to ‘deep listening’ and free playing, improvising within frameworks seems less magical, and more attainable – provided we have a good knowledge of the syntax of a given genre.

This does not mean in any way that one is better than another. I am only saying that different contexts require different sets of skills or inclination.

And what we mean by improvisation varies in degree of ‘freedom’ or ‘expression’ relative to the musical environment we choose to work in. It also means that the notion of improvisation is malleable.


This has many practical implications. I would like to direct the readers’ attention to a scientific research, in order to illustrate this point:

I am very interested in the work of Dr Charles Limb who is a scientist, medical doctor, experienced jazz musician and published researcher. His fascinating work focuses on the brain activity of jazz cats when they improvise. He finds that there is a parallel between what happens in the brain when we use language and when musicians improvise (see for ex.

I can see the similarity here, as far as jazz improvisation is concerned, but my guess is that the similarity between musical improvisation and linguistic expression is only relative to what we interpret improvisation to be.


Within jazz improvisation, I would agree with Dr Limb: that the brain activity is similar to the use of language. In this instance, musicians draw from existing databases and assemble data in real time, in order to produce coherent expression in a given context. So when we speak in conversation using a language well known to us, and also when jazz musicians improvise, we could say that there are a set number of pools of information that we draw from, such as grammatical rules, syntax, vocabulary, even morphology. To this we can add another pool of data that is a code accepted as emotional content such as inflections, tone, expression etc… The language metaphor stands.

So there is room for creativity here, of course. However, there is so much that we can do with a set number of building blocks and strict rules. There are only a limited number of combinations possible. Hence, jazz musicians started to play ‘out’, that is altering slightly how they use syntax and even make up words, to extend the metaphor. But there are still limitations to what is possible in order to keep within a well defined style.

In language, and in conventional music, if those rules are broken, it leads to confusion, misunderstanding or outrage. We are capable of creativity and improvisation indeed, but what degree of free is this freedom, really?


When we consider more open forms of expressions in music, I think that the connection with language actually collapses. As we venture further out along the axis defined above, with free improvisation, indeed, there can be recognisable patterns such as personal sound, stylistic trends etc. where musicians are still operating within a ‘comfort zone’ and drawing from known patterns of behaviour while adapting them to the context.

However, the linguistic metaphor stops working if we go further along the axis into pure improvisation (so called free improv), where all rules and expectations are put aside, when musicians are able to overcome the cognitive pull and allow themselves to completely let go, provided they are confident that their practice is adequate to support their playing, whatever the circumstances. In this case, we rely solely on listening (no pre-determined knowledge of the form) and our adaptive input may take any shape.

The deeper listening skills are at work, the more empathy is at play, the more players can relax into the communal sound making and respond instinctively, and therefore the less thinking, constructing, controlling is required. It also means, as Dr Limb describes, that less self-editing is at work in order to free our creative juices.

So as we free ourselves from expectations, or self-criticism, music tends to flow more freely.


Dr Limb has observed that:

“These are contrast maps that are showing subtractions between what changes when you’re improvising versus when you’re doing something memorized. In red is an area that is active in the prefrontal cortex, the frontal lobe of the brain, and in blue is this area that was deactivated. And so we had this focal area called the medial prefrontal cortex that went way up in activity. We had this broad patch of area called the lateral prefrontal cortex that went way down in activity, and I’ll summarize that for you here.


Now these are multifunctional areas of the brain. As I like to say, these are not the “jazz areas” of the brain. They do a whole host of things that have to do with self-reflection, introspection, working memory and so forth. Really, consciousness is seated in the frontal lobe. But we have this combination of an area that’s thought to be involved in self-monitoring, turning off, and this area that’s thought to be autobiographical, or self-expressive, turning on. And we think that at least a reasonable hypothesis is that, to be creative, you have to have this weird dissociation in your frontal lobe. One area turns on, and a big area shuts off, so that you’re not inhibited, so that you’re willing to make mistakes, so that you’re not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses.”


Here again, I personally believe that this is relative to whoever is performing and what is their mind state at that moment. We all are more or less self-conscious and critical at times, and we all have a capacity to cripple our creativity with doubt, anxiety caused by perceived expectations and so on and so forth.



But I would be very curious to see how much brain activity occurs when, following on shakuhachi masters’ wisdom, we let go of the world desires and expectations, when (and if) musicians are able to approach a near meditative state. And my guess is here that the metaphor referring to linguistic activity collapses.


In my own experience, this is only possible when I am not forced to reflect on the music and react. The presence of ego in the mix forces you to step down from a higher state because you have to then think about what would be best to participate.

If someone does not play fair, if a game of power occurs, it forces you to rationalise and negotiate, rethink your position, try to fit in, make projections, etc. against something that is clashing or jarring.

There is something perverse in that ego attracts ego. One has to fall back into a cognitive mode to the detriment of the creative flow (when the cognitive brain kicks in, it implies that less brain power or less energy is available to be creative in the moment).


Of course, working harder to make the music succeed can be ‘interesting’ to witness, on an intellectual level. But strictly speaking, it impedes on the creative flow, and as a result, I feel the music is not as good, not as deep, and is less ‘moving’ or captivating. And this is true both for the musicians involved and for the audience.

In order to attain a ‘heightened experience’, uninterrupted flow is necessary. All musicians have to be on the same wavelength to avoid being pulled out of the pure creative zone. Of course, this does not mean that an intellectual approach to music is not creative. It’s all relative and depends on the listener’s expectations. I guess that for the listener too, one has to let go in order to move more deeply into the vibrational world that is presented to you.

But I feel strongly that a live performance should be an experience, not an intellectual exercise.


I sincerely believe that this mind state (or the state of no mind) is the highest creative potential that can be achieved, when effortless and perfect communal creation occurs, when communication is balanced and every single sound falls perfectly in place and everyone involved has all the space they need for expression. There is no need for negotiation, justification, control or friction. Alone or in groups, perfect spontaneous creation happens thus.

And this is why I would argue that – contrary to the following quote from Dr Limb:

“Artistic creativity is magical, but it’s not magic. It’s a product of the brain.” (see link to TED talk above) – I think that creativity is not a ‘product’ of the brain. Creativity can be structured by memory and practice (using pools of available data as detailed above), but ultimately, it is best channelled by an empty mind.

Of course one could argue that in order to move fingers (and play music), there is some degree of brain activity occurring. However, I believe that experienced players can have integrated such movements required as ‘finger memory’ so that music may flow just as easily as one breathes.


Therefore, brain activity comes in when there is a need to rationalise, construct or control, when we need to allocate energy into the process of negotiating our place within constraints. I can see here the parallel with the need for justification and validation that forces us to inscribe our actions in the safe zone of known patterns. Whereas in pure flow mode, everything has its place naturally. We effortlessly participate the right sound at the right time, or remain silent and leave space for the others. There is no desire or need, only empathy and reverence for the communal sound – whatever is in the best interest of all involved.


Once again, this state of selflessness is life in its pure, unadultered state. It is pure creative potential in as much as there is no form in emptiness, no limitation, no blockage to the flow. This is compassion, the empathy of deep listening. And in my experience, regardless of what you play, the positive impact this has on all participants is the greatest.



additional bibliography


Limb, Charles. Many publications and public lectures on the brain activity of musicians :




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