Sunday, August 7, 2016

What happens in our brains when we improvise?

Rachel Burnham writes: Last week I took a week’s holiday to enable me to fully participate in the Manchester Jazz Festival.  As well as getting to hear lots of wonderful music (check out #mjf2016), I also went to a fascinating lecture organised by the Festival, in association with the Manchester Science Festival, about ‘What happens in our brains when we improvise?’  This lecture focused on musical improvising and was given by Dr Graeme Wilson from the University of Edinburgh, who is both a psychologist and a saxophonist.  The session was also supported by improvised music by Adam Fairhall on keyboards and Tom Ward on saxophone and flute.  Here is my sketchnote from the talk:

I found Graeme Wilson’s talk most interesting both from the viewpoint of someone who listens to lots of improvised music and as an L&Der.  It got me thinking a lot about what is going on when we encourage people to ‘improvise’ at work both in their day to day to work and when we are more specifically encouraging innovation. It also got me reflecting on my own practice when facilitating learning – as that very often has elements of improvising within it.

This is one of the very best sessions I have ever participated in that draws upon evidence from neuroscience.  Wilson explained that the session drew from a combination of neuroscience studies, predominantly using fMRI scans, cognitive psychology experiments and also interviews with musicians about their experience of improvising.  One of the things that particularly impressed me about the session was the way Graeme Wilson from the outset was clear about the limitations of these studies.  He reminded us of how impossible it is to actually interview a musician whilst they are playing and improvising – they usually have something in their mouth and are rather occupied!  So interviews are always after the event and an interpretation of what happened. He spoke of the artificiality and limited nature of many of the experiments and gave examples to illustrate.  He mentioned one particular example that involved a study of pianists improvising that required them to play the keyboard upside down and in the dark to enable them to be scanned!  He described the process of interpreting fMRI scans as ‘like watching television with the sound turned off’.  I think it made a significant difference to the way he spoke about the research, that this is both an area in which Graeme Wilson is not only a researcher, but also an active practitioner.   And during the session, we were treated to some of his playing when he and Tom Ward improvised together on their saxophones to explore some of the points discussed.

Here are three key areas from the session:

Improvising is demanding

One of the studies compared musicians playing someone else’s music to when they were improvising and identified that much stronger cognitive control is exerted when improvising.  Improvising effectively requires both mastery, but also the ability to ‘let go’.  One musician described improvising as a ‘mystery’ that required you to ignore mistakes when in the grip of improvising - this also sounds like being in a 'flow state' as Csikszentmihalyi describes.  A study of pianists (the one where they were playing upside down in the scanner) showed in their scans less activity in the brain areas associated with self-monitoring and inhibition.  In my experience you can often see and hear the moment when a group of jazz musicians relax and let go – the quality of the music immediately takes off.  

Graeme Wilson talked about the different degrees of improvisation you get in music, sometimes just sections of a piece of music are improvised such as in solos.  In this situation, musicians often describe themselves a focusing on playing key notes and then using familiar phrases – ‘patterns’ to get from one keynote to another – I relate this to the way we use habits or patterns of behaviours in daily life.  Some music has a much high proportion of improvisation and when there are no conventions to rely on, the cognitive load is huge.

Improvisation is social

Much improvised music is social involving several musicians improvising together.   Some of the studies shared explored the characteristics of this.   ‘Trading fours’, a common musical practice in jazz, where two musicians take it in turns to play in response to each other, has been studied.  This found activation of the brain areas associated with syntax and deactivation of the areas associated with processing meaning.   So improvising socially involves aspects of communication, but perhaps holding back sense-making/judging?

Again, from my own experience the most effective groups of musicians can very often be seen to listening carefully to each other and to be very attentive to each other’s body language. An example of this comes from the group ‘The Impossible Gentlemen’ who played during last week’s festival.   I have to confess to not being very keen on drummers, but Adam Nussbaum, the drummer from ‘The Impossible Gentlemen’ is a wonderful drummer and my observation is that he seems to always listening and paying attention to the other musicians.  I think the most effective listeners make better music together!

In other studies, it has been found that different musicians make sense of what is happening when they improvise together differently.  For example, Graeme Wilson and a colleague interviewed a number of musicians after a collective improvisation in which a number of musicians stopped playing and each person had a different interpretation of that event.

Improvising involves making choices

Wilson explored that when musicians improvise they make choices and this is more complex than some of the simpler models of music creation in other circumstances.   So musicians may choose to:

·       Maintain ie to continue playing as they already are – this is what is done most of the time. 

·       Or initiate change.  This is done less frequently.

Initiating change can be through either:

·       Doing something completely new, which is rarely done.

·       Or responding to what someone else is doing.  There are three options in how you can respond:

o   Adopt – start doing what someone else is doing;

o   Augment – build on what someone else is doing;

o   Contrast – do something different to what others are doing but to support what they are doing.

I found this most interesting and could relate it both what happens in conversations and also when introducing new ideas & practices to the workplace.  I think in L&D, there has been an awful lot of adopting going on when we have lifted wholesale practices from one organisation to another, without fully considering the different context in which we have been operating.  

Some thoughts from me on high performance

Drawing from this has made me wonder whether high performance in the workplace, from individuals and teams, that requires some element of improvisation involves:

·       Mastery;

·       Knowing when & how to ‘let go’ – ie break with convention;

·       Highly effective communication between co-workers, particularly listening;

·       Recognition that different degrees of improvisation may be needed eg sometimes just picking out key notes and using existing patterns of behaviour to move between them and sometimes all out collective improvisation.

I found this a very stimulating and thought-provoking session and I would love to hear your views on it.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

1 comment:

  1. An excellent set of insights - I too see the parallels between facilitation and improvisation Rachel. Thanks