In-Tune: Music with the Brain in Mind – 1

When I began this blog in May 2006, I wasn’t expecting any particular theme to emerge but, when asked recently to describe the content, found myself saying that, while I endeavour to maintain a core content of posts on music and music-education, there are also many on the overlaps between music, language and science and, hopefully, their relevance to learning & teaching. So imagine my excitement upon receiving email notification of an event at the Wellcome Collection entitled Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind – exploring improvisation and well-being. This reach across the two cultures (a successor of Head On: Art with the Brain in Mind) was the fruit of a collaboration between artakt, Central St Martins, University of the Arts, and new recording label Plushmusic (connected, I assume to the festival, Music At Plush). The day comprised two seminars (each featuring a panel of scientists and musicians), workshops and late afternoon performances of improvised music in the wonderful acoustic of the one of the Wellcome Collection’s galleries. Neither Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush nor Florence Nightingale’s moccasins ever enjoyed such harmonious surroundings.

Professor Marina Wallace (Director of artakt) introduced the morning session entitled The Science of Improvisation. On the panel were:

Dr. Peter Lovatt (Reader in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire); Oscar Bohorquez (violin); Gareth Lubbe (viola); Mark Lythgoe (Director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London); Ben Martynoga (Neuroscientist and Career Development Fellow in the division of Molecular Neurobiology at the Medical Research Council, National Institute of Medical Research in London).

Before considering improvisation in a musical setting, Peter Lovatt opened the session by reflecting upon improvisation in a more general sense – in our everyday use of language. Contrary to what many believe, he maintains that much of what we say is not improvisatory; that we often know what we are going to say in advance; that we know what the response of the person(s) with whom we are conversing is likely to be. Try as we might to escape set patterns of speech (schemas) we often find that we’ve merely replaced them with new ones. The simple fact appears to be that cognitive economy encourages us to rely upon and conform to expectations. To prove this point, mid-sentence, he replaced the clause, “how to recognise speech” with “how to wreck a nice beach” and none of us noticed – context and expectations informing content. In a later exercise we were asked silently to generate a string of random numbers or letters to a steady beat (120 beats-per-minute). About half the audience confessed to falling quite quickly into familiar strings of letters (often acronyms) or numbers (telephone numbers, dates of birth etc.) Interestingly, I had read in New Scientist the previous day that the brain constitutes 2% of our mass, yet consumes 20% of our calorific intake. Were we to insist on avoiding schemas altogether, we might encourage our brain to out-consume its host.

But is there any advantage in striving, at least for some of the time, for a more spontaneous existence? It appears that improvisation has a beneficial effect on cognition. Laboratory research shows that subjects who have engaged in 20 minutes of improvisation (language-based or role play, I assume) perform significantly better in a variety of problem solving tests than control subjects who have not. He also quoted Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation in the Theatre reporting that, after improvising, students felt that colours appeared brighter; that space seemed of a different dimension; that the volume of speech sounded louder and clearer. At this point I found myself thinking that, poised as we are on the brink of massive curricular reform in Scotland, this area surely warrants further investigation!

Before moving onto the musical component of this part of the seminar, Peter Lovatt invited us to a workshop over lunchtime where we could experiment with techniques to break out of our usual speech patterns. I’ll write this up in a later post.

The musical performance and discursive contributions of Oscar Bohorquez (violin) and Gareth Lubbe (viola) highlighted the fact that there are many facets to, and levels of, improvisation:

  • Playing from a written score – demonstrated by playing a duo for violin & viola by Mozart. Even in this seemingly predetermined format interpretative elements are left to the discretion of the performer – tempo; rigidity/flexibility of pulse; degree of dynamic variation; numerous decisions on articulation. Some would be discussed in rehearsal and some decided by sensibility in performance
  • Improvising upon a musical stimulus – they returned to the Mozart, Oscar playing from the violin part and Gareth improvising a 2nd part on the viola. Some bars into the performance, Peter removed Oscar’s music (you’ll hear the audience laugh 17” into the mp3) and the two began to interact with one another more as the score was left behind. This opened up a larger reservoir of genres and aesthetics than those of Mozart’s era. In addition to the provision of a theme, using the Mozart also proved that the duo weren’t simply performing a pre-prepared piece with an quasi-improvisatory feel. Those in the audience with a musical background would have noted that there was no discussion of key and yet the duo managed, through keen listening and quick response, to cover a large tonal canvass without harmonic tragedy – not an everyday occurrence! With their kind permission here is an mp3 of the improvisation: Mozart Improvisation
  • Improvising along with another medium. One might conjour up here the silent movie pianist. In this particular instance though, the stimulus was an improvised clog-dance by Peter Lovatt. Discussing it later, Gareth agreed that many of the musical considerations had been rhythmic – although not all of them. Here is a recording of the improvisation: Clog Dance
  • Free improvisation – Oscar described how he would often begin with silence and would try to quieten the mind before beginning. The opening would in most cases be truly random. Soon though, material might emerge which was informed by some of that played earlier and here the interplay between spontaneity, coherence and form came into play. He used the simile of exploring a new city; becoming lost in unfamiliar territory; sighting landmarks from earlier in the journey and, through them, beginning to form an idea of the shape of the place.

Other musical points of interest mentioned along the way included the observation that, in previous eras – particularly the Baroque – it was a given that musicians would be able to improvise. This is something that we seem to have lost and I would contend that music teachers, confident in improvisation and its necessary prerequisite, playing by ear, are the exception and not the rule.

At this point, Peter, Oscar & Gareth stepped aside, allowing Mark Lythgoe and Ben Martynoga to discuss the neuroscientific aspects of improvisation.

Mark Lythgoe began with undiluted praise for the phenomenon of improvisation, describing it as the most highly prized aspect of human development – one without which our evolution could not have unfolded in the way that it has. He amplified Peter Lovatt’s point that relying on expectations of the world can mitigate against more creative thinking. His illustration of this was ingenious as, rather than show us that we think in a certain way because it is normal, he set out to illustrate that we simply wouldn’t think of something that was illogical. He prefaced a fraction-of-a-second’s view of a photograph of two people with the caption, “Clinton and …?” We all guessed Kennedy or Gore, but in fact the image had shown Clinton standing behind Clinton. This understandable tendency to adhere solely to the possible (as currently understood) is one of the barriers to truly creative leaps of the imagination.

Ben Martynoga took over to describe to us an experiment at Bristol University where subjects, given a three word stimulus had been placed in a brain scanner. Initially they were asked to string the words into a narrative in as uncreative and functional a way as possible. Given another three word stimulus they were asked to be as creative as possible. The scans showed increased activity in the right prefrontal cortex when subjects were striving for creativity. This was regarded as neurological evidence of a different state of mind.

In an effort to show musical improvisation as a form of communication, Oscar and Gareth were asked to convey the sense of one of four words to the audience. They faced the audience and the four words were on a screen behind them. They would only be shown one word. We had to guess which one. They were asked to begin playing randomly and then, upon being shown the word, to communicate its essence to the crowd.

The four on-screen words behind Oscar were: computer; war; water; & star. See if you can guess which one Oscar was shown – answers at the end of this post*. Oscar’s word

The four on-screen words behind Gareth were: teeth; anxiety; bicycle & tall. I have to admit to finding this one more tricky – answer at the end of the post**. Gareth’s word

The results were impressive from the point of view of music as communication as a majority guessed correctly in both cases (I’d estimate that there were around 200 people in the auditorium – but I’m not very good at guessing crowds.)

Ben then described an experiment at John Hopkins Medicine featuring six jazz pianists. Placed inside an fMRI scanner, they were given a modified keyboard – all the metal was removed to avoid blowing up the equipment. The object of the experiment was to see how readings were affected when the musicians changed from playing a prepared, memorised melody to improvising freely. The important feature of the results was less to do with increased activity but more with an area of the brain which was not only inactive but shut down. The area concerned (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) exerts an inhibitory influence, facilitating self-censorship, control and planning – all enemies of improvisation.

The question is – can we bring about these states of mind ourselves in order to be creative? Allan Snyder’s thinking cap is designed for this very purpose using a process called transcranial magnetic stimulation. A magnetic field aimed at the electrode-filled cap temporarily shuts down areas of the brain in the hope that others might wield more influence on our efforts.

There are, of course, numerous case histories where lesions in the brain – the result of strokes and accidents – have resulted in the flowering of hitherto dormant artistic inclinations and talents – often resulting in prolific output. Less extreme approaches were shortly to be offered in Peter Lovatt’s workshop – essentially strategies to free up the mind in verbal improvisation and role play – as promised – more on that in a later post.

As often is the case in an interesting seminar, a measurement of its effectiveness lies in the quality of questions from the audience – and the answers offered.

The first of these questioned the assumption that improvisation is primarily about originality, suggesting that it is more to do with a relational dialogue. There was agreement from the panel about that interaction – either between a person and his/her environment or between two or more people – would constitute evidence of creative, communicative improvisation as opposed simply to ambling around. Peter Lovatt mentioned that one problem is that, given that this is a relatively new field, the definition of improvisation is constantly growing.

Peter was then asked about improvisation in movement and dance. He defined it as moving in a way that we would not expect ourselves to move and also pointed out some of the factors influencing movement – prenatal levels of testosterone, menstrual cycle etc. It is already known that verbal improvisation impacts on various cognitive domains e.g. visual domains. And it is known that if people can be encouraged to free up movement through dance improvisation, this will also impact on verbal cognitive domains. As yet there are no data on the effect of improvised movement on other domains. What is known is that in dance, as in other fields, training tends to constrain freedom.

An audience member asked about the effect of fear on improvisation. There was general agreement that fear will drive us towards the comfort of set patterns. Oscar pointed out that improvisations in private tend to be freer than public ones.

The next question concerned communication and distraction. The questioner complimented Oscar & Gareth on the communication and responsiveness in their first improvisation and asked if, when improvising together for the clog dance, they had been sidetracked. Gareth confessed that they had been sidetracked by concentrating on the dance. I had thought at the time that their eyes were given over to the dance but that their ears would be taking in one another’s playing in addition to the rhythm of the steps.

The penultimate questioner wondered whether stated quietening of the mind to a creative tabula rasa was really taking place. Was it not the case that the performer may, albeit unconsciously, be engaged in the simple reordering of learned moves. Gareth compared the long-time player of an instrument to unconscious control an experience driver exerts over a vehicle. I took this to mean that the driver is interacting with the road and enjoying the environment while effortlessly manoeuvring the vehicle.

My own question was the last and concerned gender. I stated that although the gender ratio of my pupils is pretty much 50-50, when it comes to improvising and its necessary prerequisite – playing by ear – that boys appear to be much more confident – often to the point of recklessness. I wondered if either the scientists or the musicians had any experience of, or opinions on, this matter. It seems that there is no research on gender and improvising. What is known is that age is a factor. Pupils will improvise freely in story telling up to around the age of 8. However, this tails off exponentially, reaching a nadir of self-conscious restriction during teenage years – with the possible exception of explaining where they’ve been until this time of night.

At the end of the session, a lady in the audience, who has taught for many years, approached me and agreed on reticence of some girls in improvisation and the tendency of boys to get in there and perhaps take over. She mentioned that she now teaches Taiko drumming in London and has noticed that, possibly as there is no gender bias in role models, the girls tend to get stuck in a little more and really get a lot out of it in terms of confidence and empowerment. Coincidentally I heard on Radio 4’s Today yesterday (Mon 17th) a female advocate of the benefits of gender-specific education for both sexes (no details on Today’s website) claiming that girls improvise better than boys. Perhaps there is even gender bias in the noticing of gender bias?

* Oscar’s word was war

**Gareth’s word was bicycle

3 thoughts on “In-Tune: Music with the Brain in Mind – 1”

  1. Thanks for posting this article; sounds a fascinating event, wish I could have been there. Chimes with a lot of thoughts I have about the relationship between improvisation and composition; particularly my growing conviction that, to get some of my students to *really* compose (instead of aimlessly typing derivative gestures into Sibelius), I need to encourage them to *improvise*. Possibly in some other domain than music; I’d like to find out more about what an exercise in verbal improvisation would be like. It seems to me that the inhibitory blocks which need to be removed in order for people to ‘improvise’ might be the same blocks which stop people from composing.

  2. Simon,

    Thanks for you comment. I’ll be writing up the short lunchtime workshop of verbal impro soon (and then the afternoon session called, Music Leaves Its Mark).

    Are you still playing the trumpet? I recall we did a gig together years ago in a pub in Shandwick Place – with the unlikely combination of voice, trumpet & piano – no bass, no drums



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