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The Pleasure of Improvising

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posted on Jul, 23 2009 @ 09:01 PM

As an amateur musician, I was pleased to come across an article that brought together two of my favorite topics: music and the brain. Two scientists in Baltimore devised a clever way to discover what happens in the brain when a person improvises.

Improvisation in music involves playing novel melodies, harmonies and rhythms, but staying roughly within the framework of the written music. It blends a high level of skill with spontaneity.

This special blend is not seen only in music. In fact, you don't have to be any kind of artist at all. Improvisation is just as much a part of cooking a stew or tinkering with a motorcycle.

On an everyday level, improvising is the difference between approaching work or play creatively and going through the motions. And it probably makes work and play more fun.

Ah the euphoria of it all.
A nice little article, talks about what parts of the brain and what goes on in our heads when we improvise.

Regardless whether your a musician or an artist or anything that requires on the go thinking, this article points to the fact that your in fact using a totally different part of your brain to make those quick decisions and calculations.

This article made me think of instinct, and how improvisation and instinct could be linked.

you feel good when you improvise, in part, because you have turned on that part of your brain that is most closely aligned with your aspirations.


[edit on 23-7-2009 by phi1618]

posted on Jul, 23 2009 @ 09:17 PM
Great post. I am a musician. Retired, I suppose at a much too young age. Improvisation and noodling, so close and yet so far away. I can appreciate a good band improvising. It is fun to watch the consciousness connect between individual participants while a group of people sway in the ebb and flow of creation. It is WAY more fun to be a part of it. You know, playing your part, instinctively while the hair raises up on your body. I have played many shows in 6 different countries. Maybe I was too young to fully appreciate it but even now, I can feel that ol' right brain activate when I pick up the guitar, keyboard, or sit at a kit. If nothing else, thanks for this post as I just went down a familiar trip down a lane of memory that I thoroughly enjoy!

posted on Jul, 23 2009 @ 09:31 PM
reply to post by Chemley

I can relate, ive been an avid artist since i was 4 years old and i often improvise many of my works. The idea may start off being one thing, and in the end ends up being something completely different.

its amazing how truly similar traditional art and music are.

posted on Jul, 23 2009 @ 11:32 PM
reply to post by phi1618

Nice article. I've known this for long. I'm somewhat addicted to it. Spanning most of my life's years, my inventions which quite many are improvised ranged from jet engines, telescopes, robots, to modifying acoustic properties of headphones!
Mostly made from recycled materials.

As much as my love for inventing and improvising is my love for music. But I don't play any instrument, just fond of listening to all kinds of music. An audiophile so I'm also fond of modifying my audio devices to suit my listening demands!

posted on Jul, 24 2009 @ 07:54 AM
Star and flag, thanks for sharing this article.

I play with a guitar, have been playing off and on since 1993, and improv is the most fun.

Between work, wife, and a kid, I don't have time to jam with people so I usually play some mp3s on the computer and add another guitar part. It is like sitting in with the band and is a good feeling.

Or lay down a simple rhythm and solo over it.

I mean, who wants to be the world's best parrot? Play your own stuff.

posted on Jul, 24 2009 @ 08:35 PM
Most of my musical life has involved improvisation to some extent, from the time I tried to play guitar solos up to being involved in a seven-piece band that did nothing else.

Some people may find my observations relevant.

The most fun I've ever had was in my improvising band. It was a seven-piece: guitar (me), bass, drums, alto sax, trumpet, percussion (including vibes and marimba) plus a DJ who would often sample what we'd done and mix it back in.

We played weekly for about a year and a half maybe 2 years before being ready to gig.

In that situation, I have to say that the most important thing for me was the act, and the art, of listening. If you listen carefully enough to what is going on around you, you'll hear what to play. Of course being able to do that involves knowing that you'll be able to play what you hear when you hear it... that's not an easy skill to acquire.

When we did start gigging, we'd find we'd do two 45-minute sets or thereabouts, each of which would divide into several distinct sections with themes and textures specific to each. We became adept at recognising a tune when someone played it, and immediately reacting to support, harmonise, and eventually deconstruct the tune.

Despite being told specifically beforehand that everything they'd hear would be completely improvised, people would often come up afterwards and say, "I know that's what you said, but some of those tunes were written beforehand, weren't they?"

Also, after a while, the way we managed changes became much more spontaneous. You'd somehow feel that a change was required, and often without even a nod, people would suddenly change direction all together, like a flock of birds or school of fish.

The styles that we improvised within reflected the composition of the group. We all liked jazz and hip-hop, so there was a base there: but suddenly we'd find ourselves playing a simple folk tune, or rocking out, or just having fun making noises. The percussion player was classically trained and did a lot of avant-garde classical stuff, so sometimes there'd be a nod to what some have termed the "tinkly-bonk" school of music. Once at a gig, I went to the percussion box and got two swanee whistles out and played them both simultaneously, playing more to rhythm and gesture than to actual tuning. It went down really well and I absolutely loved it.

Sometimes I wouldn't play at all. Sometimes I'd give in to the pressure of feeling I ought to be playing something, and would join in only to completely ruin something that was getting along fine without me. A mistake seldom repeated. (Wish I could say, never repeated, but, you know, I'm not that bright.)

One aspect of improvisation that's not often looked at is the art of comping. I'd have to say that I found comping someone easily as enjoyable as soloing myself, and in that band I had a lot of room to do it as apart from the vibes I was the only chordal instrument (although that does something of an injustice to the bassist who was and is pretty astonishing). The trumpet player and I both loved the Miles Davis comeback band of the 80s and occasionally we'd succumb to the temptation to dive into that kind of sound. The alto player was a huge Ornette fan and we'd spend quite a lot of time in "chromatic free space" aka (to Iain M. Banks fans) as the Land of Infinite Fun.*

When I comp, I just listen really hard to what the soloist is doing and try to anticipate the phrasing, putting chords in in places that fit with the line being played. I'd like to express it better than that, but I can;t. I will reiterate that the key is listening. Often when musicians play together they're really only thinking about themselves and how they sound, which renders them insensitive to the needs of their fellow musicians and of the music itself.

I also have to say that one gig is worth a thousand hours of rehearsal.

And no, I'm not going to post any links, mostly because I like being anonymous here, but also because most of the best stuff we played simply vanished into the air. We were a bit lax about getting stuff recorded and there were people (including myself) who left and came back... if we'd managed to just keep going it would have been consistently amazing, but sadly the usual personal and musical indifferences broke through and the band is no more. Although I did have a jam with the bassist and drummer the other day. The bassist in particular is really hot and is getting a lot of good work - but the relationship we have still holds. In a break he said to me, "man, that time we just both changed key together, it was amazing!" and I just thought, "how soon they forget". Changing key or even rhythmic feel together was just something that started to happen after we'd been together for a while and I never forgot how good it felt or how important it was.

So I'd have to say that for that kind of endeavour, there are some good rules of thumb. First, know your instrument the best you can. Second, just listen to where the music is going. Very often people who improvise speak of the music seeming to come from somewhere outside them and I know what they mean. Third, try to let go of demands that people play in a specific way. It's better to let everyone find their own space and then expand from there. Fourth, make sure that the people around you have a fairly low threshold of boredom. That way you won't be stuck on one chord or groove forever. Fifth, on the other hand, be aware of the power of repetition. It gives structure to what can otherwise be an amorphous mess. And there's nothing like repeating a tune you've just played to make people think it was written beforehand. Sixth (this really works in a larger ensemble), anyone can stop playing at any time. There's nothing like having the drummer stop for no apparent reason to sort out a band's sense of time. Plus, it's just basic dynamics. You don't want everyone playing all the time, there's no light and shade.

On the subject of listening... there's a great book by Lynne McTaggart called The Field in which she talks about the random number generators used in the Consciousness Research Project. It turns out that if people start paying attention to something, RNGs start organising their output, in other words, it's not random any more. This is weird, but there's plenty of experimental evidence to support this contention.

Anyway, some people took an RNG to the Bayreuth festival and the results were amazing. The device's output was consistently at its least random at those points in the opera where quiet music plus intense drama means you could almost literally hear a pin drop.

It would have been cool to put one of the RNGs in our rehearsal room and compare the output with a recording of what the band was doing. I suspect there would have been correlation points between the RNG output and those transition points I mentioned earlier - that's when you're listening hardest, and actually trying to listen into the future.

I also think that Rupert Sheldrake's theory of the Extended mind is hugely useful in looking at this issue, and is rather more relevant than a lot of the scientific efforts, such as they are, to look at this issue.

*And no, none of us would claim to understand the theory of harmolodics, much less apply it. In fact, when you really just play, theory goes out the window.

[edit on 24-7-2009 by rich23]

posted on Jul, 24 2009 @ 08:37 PM
reply to post by phi1618

Fascinating. I'm a writer as opposed to a musician but I think the same thing applies, I've always found it much more fun to wing a story or a poem than to rigidly plan it

Spontaneity FTW

posted on Jul, 24 2009 @ 09:02 PM
I have to add that the reductionist approach of the article does irritate me a bit. It's not that you can't learn anything from what they're doing, it's more that they ascribe too much importance to the mechanics of it. Here's the last paragraph:

Based on one small study, it is too early to declare that the medial prefrontal cortex is the seat of jazz, let alone all human creativity. But Drs. Limb and Braun have helped demonstrate that meaningful human work and play result from highly evolved human biology rather than magic.

Sorry, but that last sentence is just nonsense. First, who said anything about magic? That's a straw man.

But my real problem is with that conclusion, which for me is founded on absolutely nothing solid. I'm not a creationist, let's get that out of the way, I'm not even a Christian, but I think that the current Darwinian model of evolution is an absolute crock. Firstly it doesn't explain speciation: secondly it's a relic of Victorian values: thirdly, the mechanism by which it all is supposed to take place is just nonsensical (random variations and DNA transcription errors are ludicrously unlikely to throw up improvements in the genome) and as I say does not explain speciation. Even Steven Jay Gould had to resort to "punctuated equilibrium" to try to explain the fact that the fossil record (insofar as it hasn't been distorted by efforts to banish anomalous data (like the human footprint in the dinosaur footprint - you think that's the first time something like that's been found? Uh Uh) indicates that speciation seems to happen massively, in distinct eras, with huge stretches of nothing much in between. Hence the term, "the Cambrian explosion".

Compounding things is the whole field of evolutionary biology, which is the biggest load of pseudo-scientific poop extant. Hardly a month goes by, it seems, without some tenured fool pontificating about why some attribute or other evolved. Because it's couched in Darwinian orthodoxy, it passes muster without any serious inspection.

But it's just people making stuff up. It's one long game of ex post facto rationalisation, and it's never, ever, testable. That something like this should be dignified with the name of science gets my goat somehwat.

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