Martin Norgaard, Matthew G. Dunaway, Steven P. Black

Descriptions of Improvisational Thinking by Expert Musicians Trained in Different Cultural Traditions

  • Music
  • Education

Abstract Research about improvisation often focuses on one musical tradition. The current study investigated experts’ descriptions of thinking behind improvisation in different cultural traditions through interviews with advanced improvisers residing in a metropolitan area in the United States. The participants were rigorously trained in their tradition and have performance experience within it. However, as residents of the United States, they are experienced in communicating with Western audiences and conversant in Western ways of thinking about music. Immediately after completing the improvisation, each participant listened to a recording and looked at its visual representation while describing the underlying thinking. The visual representation showed pitch contour and note length without reference to any notational system. A thematic analysis by researchers trained in Western classical music and jazz revealed eight main themes: Licks and Conventions describe how prelearned material and convention guided creation; Reaction, Forward Looking, and Repetition and Variety outline various processes that shape creation in the moment; and Aesthetics, Communication, and Emotion provide clues to the improvisers’ motivation behind choices. Interestingly, the use of prelearned patterns appears to facilitate improvisations in all the traditions represented. This and other identified strategies appearing cross-culturally may be indicative of shared underpinning cognitive processes. Identification of these shared strategies from a classical/jazz viewpoint may aid educators in broadening their curricula to include other musical traditions of improvisation.

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