Cognitive dimensions of instrumental jazz improvisation



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Jazz improvisation represents one of the more impressive examples of human creative behavior, but as yet there has been little systematic investigation of its cognitive bases. The results of three studies that this investigation comprises illustrate the optimizations of thinking and behavior that underlie the capacities of skillful jazz improvisers, enabling them to meet the demands of improvised performance effectively and efficiently. Studies 1 and 2 provide evidence of a process for generating and controlling musical ideas that improvisers can enact with little conscious mediation. In Study 1, this was demonstrated by the ability of experienced improvisers to generate well-formed improvised solos during dual-task conditions, in which they allocated attentional resources to a secondary nonmusical task. In Study 2, the contributions of nonconscious processes to jazz improvisation were inferred from experienced improvisers’ descriptions of their intentions for upcoming music during improvised solos. Their descriptions contained almost no explicit details of the music they were about to play; v inexperienced improvisers, contrastingly, conceived of upcoming music largely in terms of its specific details (e.g., note selection, the quotation of licks). Study 3 examines the perceptions of two musicians performing as a duo, both serving at different times as soloist and accompanist. Here, the soloist’s attention was focused on the developmental and associative implications of his musical ideas, whereas the accompanist’s attention was devoted primarily to assessing the aesthetic and logistical implications of the soloist’s part while remaining vigilant for opportunities to directly interact. The findings in these studies illustrate the extent to which expert jazz musicians acquire and refine procedures for generating well-formed musical ideas at a minimal cognitive cost. The efficiency of the improvisational process was evidenced by the limited demands that generating novel music placed on the skilled improvisers’ attention, and in the abstract relationship between experts’ musical intentions and the specific actions they produced in bringing their intentions to fruition.