Improvisation, Idiom and Neuroscience

This recent article picks up things I had recently discussed and is welcome to me especially as it indicates more classical performers are (slowly) returning to the use of improvisation in performance. This is not classical music as free jazz, but a sense of both embellishment (adding ornaments and transitional phrases to a sparely written melody in the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto, for example), and creating original material (a cadenza) which comments on the style and language of the composition and is in that style and language, which is a rough way of describing what I mean by idiomatic.

This study mentioned at The Daily Dish misses one critical aspect for me, which is the study of the brain as the musician listens to himself improvise. A jazz musician may suppress inhibition in order to solo, but that musician (and any other idiomatic improviser), is not suppressing taste and judgement they are listening to themselves and tossing aside what doesn’t work while finding things that do and developing them. Good improvisation has a structure that is defined by the improvisation itself, not unlike a worked-out cadenza, and this is true even for free jazz (and also one of the reasons why free jazz is so hard to do really well – playing free isn’t the same as playing well). The classic study piece is Sonny Rollins blowing on “Blue Seven,” but the recorded literatures spans Armstrong’s “West End Blues” to Jarrett’s “The Koln Concert,” before and beyond. What would their brains look like, in neuroscience terms, during this self-listening, after they have taken the step to improvise and while they are making it work? I think that is the essential question.

Anyone interested in improvisation as a practice, and each and every musician who improvises, should read this book, again and again. Beyond essential.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.