University of Cambridge > > Pedagogy, Language, Arts & Culture in Education (PLACE) Group Seminars > Webinars for Professional Development in the Arts Series 8: "Learning to let go: How expert improvisors choose notes subconsciously"

Webinars for Professional Development in the Arts Series 8: "Learning to let go: How expert improvisors choose notes subconsciously"

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Unlike experts, novice improvisers often try to control individual note choices. In an earlier qualitative study, artist-level improvisers described consciously focusing on larger musical structures while individual notes were chosen outside of conscious control. In a follow-up study with developing improvisers we found that beginners often focus on individual note choices to the detriment of structural coherence. Expert improvisers state they rely on learned melodic and rhythmic patterns in order to focus on larger musical structures. To investigate this, we created a computer algorithm that is capable of producing new improvisations using patterns given a corpus of solos in the same style. We also conducted an experimental study in which artist-level jazz pianists improvised while consciously engaged in an unrelated counting task. Participants used significantly more pitch and interval patterns in the experimental condition compared to a control condition in which they improvised without distractions. Taken together these results support the idea that expert improvisers use learned patterns during improvisation so they can focus elsewhere. One of the goals of instruction in improvisation therefore should be to allow novice improvisers to experience the feeling of “letting go” by teaching them to insert known scale and chord patterns subconsciously.


Martin Norgaard is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Georgia State University in Atlanta where he is collaborating with faculty in mathematics, computer science, linguistics, and physics to investigate the cognitive processes underlying improvisation. Dr. Norgaard recently presented results of a computer modeling project in Vienna, Austria, and Aarhus, Denmark. Another team of Norgaard’s collaborators just received a grant to conduct a brain imaging experiment investigating the cognitive underpinnings of musical improvisation in expert jazz improvisers. Dr. Norgaard was the guest editor of a recent theme issue of Psychomusicology, Music, Mind, and Brain based on papers from the Improvising Brain Symposium held at GSU in April 2013. His research also appears in the Journal of Research in Music Education and the interdisciplinary journal Music Perception. He is the author of ten jazz string method books for Mel Bay Publications including Jazz Fiddle Wizard and Jazz Fiddle/Viola/Cello Wizard Junior and the composer of several string orchestra pieces for The FJH Music Company and Alfred Music Publishing. Dr. Norgaard serves on the Music Educators Journal advisory board and recently finished work writing the next generation National Standards in the Arts under the auspices of the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards.

This talk is part of the Pedagogy, Language, Arts & Culture in Education (PLACE) Group Seminars series.

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