International Society for Improvised Music 9th Festival & Conference 2016

  • Graeme Wilson (Speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference


Research presentation: Musical choices during group free improvisation; a qualitative psychological investigation Graeme B Wilson & Raymond AR McDonald Reid School of Music, ECA, University of Edinburgh, 12 Nicolson Square, Edinburgh EH8 9DF, United Kingdom Group musical improvisation is a unique psychological phenomenon. Cognitive psychological literature on jazz musicians argues that this social creativity in real time is possible because an improviser’s choices are constrained by stylistic conventions, and because they have subconscious access to pre-existing musical components internalised through practice. However the expanding field of free improvisation as practised today is predicated on avoiding idiomatic expectations and familiar material. To model musical improvisation in its widest sense, 15 diverse free improvisers were video-recorded performing in trios, and interviewed in-depth while reviewing the recording. Improvisers described choosing on an iterative basis whether to maintain what they were doing or change, either to initiate a new direction or to respond to another improviser. When responding to others, subjective distinctions emerged between adopting, augmenting or contrasting the contributions of others. These choices were based on evaluative dimensions of texture, rate of initiatives, and degrees of novelty and diversity, as well as structural and practical concerns and experience of enjoyment. Improvisers did not perceive consistent degrees of agency for themselves while improvising within the group, and their rationales for musical choices were influenced by how they constructed the particular social context of the music and the research. These results highlight that new material is generated at a variable rate by any one individual during this collaborative practice; participation is constant while playing, but individual creativity or creative responsibility fluctuates. Constraints on choices to cope with high cognitive demands while improvising together can best be understood as subjective and situation-specific, in contrast with the canonical understanding of objective constraints in the literature on jazz soloists. The importance of these findings for theories and appreciation of creative practice in improvisation will be discussed.
Period12 May 2016
Event typeConference
LocationWaterloo, Guelph & Toronto, Ontario, CanadaShow on map


  • music
  • Improvisation
  • psychology
  • group
  • qualitative research methods