Musical improvisation improves cognitive flexibility


Jazz artist Louis Armstrong once said, “never play a thing the same way twice.” Although musical improvisation — composing new passages on the spot — is not unique to jazz, it’s perhaps the genre’s most defining element.

While improvised jazz solos are spontaneous, there are rules, says Martin Norgaard, associate professor of music education.

“In tonal jazz, improvisation is not ‘free,’” he says. “It’s always tied to the chord structure that the melody is based on.”

In other words, improvisation is an incredibly complex form of creative expression, yet great jazz improvisers like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis or John Coltrane make it seem effortless. Which makes you wonder: what’s happening inside jazz players’ brains as they simultaneously compose and play music?

“As a musician, you feel that there’s something different about the way your brain is working when you improvise,” says Norgaard, a violinist who came to the U.S. in 1985 to study jazz. “You’re tapping all your stored knowledge and adapting it to a chord structure in real-time.”

While earning his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, Norgaard began studying the effects of musical improvisation: interviewing jazz artists and students about their thoughts during the process of improvisation, analyzing the solos of Charlie Parker for patterns and asking musicians to perform a secondary task while improvising to see how it affects their performances.

Last spring, he teamed up with Mukesh Dhamala, associate professor of physics and astonomy, and asked advanced jazz musicians to sing pre-learned and improvised music while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging, a test that measures activity in the brain.

In the study, published in Brain Connectivity, the researchers found decreased brain connectivity during improvisation. Norgaard says the finding isn’t as surprising as you might think.

“This idea of ‘flow’ — where you’re completely immersed in an activity — has been linked to deactivation of some brain areas,” says Norgaard.

“It may be that performing improvisation engages a smaller, more focused brain network, while other parts of the brain go quiet.”

In his most recent study, published in August in the Journal of Research in Music Education, Norgaard examines the “far transfer effect” of improvisation — how learning to invent music in the moment affects other cognitive abilities.

“For nearly three decades, scientists have explored the idea that learning to play an instrument is linked to academic achievement,” says Norgaard.

“Yet at the same time, there are many types of music learning. Does the kid who learns by ear get the same benefits as the kid who learns notation or the kid who learns to improvise?”

This is a photo of jazz legend Lois Armstrong

Jazz artist Louis Armstrong once said, “never play a thing the same way twice.” The image is in the public domain.

The researchers started by conducting a pre-test, in which they asked two sets of middle school kids to each perform two tasks: one that tests cognitive flexibility, or the brain’s ability to task-switch, and another that tests inhibitory control, or the brain’s ability to focus on relevant information and block out irrelevant information.

The middle-schoolers played instruments, but only some studied jazz through the Georgia State Rialto Jazz for Kids program.

They found that the jazz students drastically outper- formed their concert band peers.

“Still, we didn’t know: are kids with high levels of cognitive flexibility simply drawn to jazz, or is it the improvisation that produces the effect,” says Norgaard.

To follow up, he and his collaborators asked the school’s band director to divide his entire concert band — 155 7th and 8th graders — into two groups.

Each group learned about jazz, but only half learned improvisation.

Then each group was given the same two brain tests. The result: improvisation training led to a significant improvement in cognitive flexibility.

“Their scores started looking like the scores of the kids who had studied jazz from the pre-test,” says Norgaard.

The improvements were only apparent in the 8th graders; 7th-grade students instead saw a small improvement in inhibitory control.

“It’s hard to say what’s driving the difference in effect.

Maybe it’s the age of the kids or maybe it’s the number of years spent playing an instrument,” says Norgaard. “In the future, we need to look into whether improvisation has different cognitive effects depending on a student’s age or experience.”

n a fast changing century, many people in arts, science, teaching, management, or technology wonder how to innovate and produce novel and useful resources, which are the most widely accepted elements regarding the definition of creativity (Sternberg and Lubart, 1993Ritter and Mostert, 2017).

Considering this necessity to develop good creativity skills, many people turn to arts, mostly theater and music. In this context, the success of improvisational theater (improv), supposed to enhance creativity (Bermant, 2013), spreads into various areas beyond theater (i.e., applied improvisation): medical doctors, psychologists, teachers, students, managers, negotiators and scientists attend improv workshops (Bermant, 2013Bernstein, 2014Hainselin et al., 2017bHoffmann-Longtin et al., 2017).

The effects of improv on creativity, claimed by improv teacher, have not yet been studied extensively in cognitive sciences. The most of these studies used some improv games but not a full cycle usually used in improv training (Lewis and Lovatt, 2013Sowden et al., 2015).

The current project aims to focus on the impact of an ecological improv cycle on teenagers, which have never been studied, in our knowledge. In the remaining part of the introduction, we will focus on one aspect of creativity (divergent thinking) and psychological impact of improvisation.

Divergent Thinking

Classic creativity models include the implication of associative processes (Megalakaki et al., 2012). Lubart (2001, p. 295) specified the cognitive processes involved in creativity as “a capacity to produce many ideas (fluency), an ability to change one’s mental set (flexibility), an ability to reorganize, an ability to deal with complexity, and an ability to evaluate.” Creativity includes divergent thinking and convergent thinking.

Divergent thinking supposed to generate multiple different answers or to think “out of the box.”

One of its most common evaluations is the generation of alternative ideas, as assessed in the Alternative Uses Task (AUT; Guilford, 1967).

Convergent thinking is the ability to find the most coherent idea of several answers. This knowledge dependent “evaluation of the novelty” interacts with divergent thinking and is “most effective in situations where a ready-made answer exists and need simply to be recalled from stored information” (Cropley, 2006).

While it is commonly admitted that creativity is both divergent and convergent thinking, the latter is sometimes referred to as “uncreative” (Ritter and Ferguson, 2017) and previous research pinpointed that divergent thinking is a widely accepted measure of creativity (Runco and Acar, 2012Kenett et al., 2014).

Mumford’s team (1991) proposed a model highlighting eight core processing activities for creative efforts:

(1) problem definition,

(2) information encoding,

(3) category search,

(4) specification of best-fitting categories,

(5) combination and reorganization of best-fitting categories,

(6) idea evaluation,

(7) implementation, and

(8) monitoring.

Although, these eight processes should be taken into account for creativity assessment, Mumford et al. (2008), in a Silvia’s et al. (2008) team commentary paper, wrote that the idea generation measure used in this latter study is consistent with the traditional approach in the literature, probably for feasibility issues. Mumford et al. (1991) suggest that this kind of output-based measure might mostly reflect the idea generation process and not all of the eight they highlighted. While we believe research should focus on assessing these eight core processing activities, we also know that it is very time consuming and not always possible in ecological evaluation, especially with children and teenagers.

Many psychological factors, cognitive and emotional, can influence divergent thinking (for review and full description of cognitive processes involved, see Megalakaki et al., 2012).

In its early research, Guilford scored his task for flexibility (changing from one idea to the others) and fluency (producing different ideas), two dimensions widely highlighted in the literature in divergent thinking assessments.

Heuristics and information processing (including the associative processes of binding) also influence divergent thinking; they can be related to associative and executive processes (i.e., updating, switching, inhibition; Beaty et al., 2014).

The role of associative processes, as well as executive control, seems to be particularly important to divergent thinking (Forthmann et al., 2016).

Indeed, connecting the dots in a particular way, due to good associative process, might lead to see patterns where others cannot; in other words, it can be the combination of remote associations into new and useful combinations (Kenett et al., 2014).

The associative processes have strong connections with memory to help creativity processes to emerge (for extended discussion, see Jung and Vartanian, 2018). Personality factors, notably openness, risk taking and perseverance also have an impact on divergent thinking (Lubart et al., 2009).

Improvisational Theater

Improvisational theater (improv) is a specific theater form in which the performance is spontaneous (i.e., without previous scenario written nor prepared).

In this condition, going on stage without a single prepared word, costume or décor requires risk taking and perseverance to keep falling and getting up for every performance (Johnstone, 1999Bermant, 2013). Hoffmann-Longtin et al. (2017) recently pinpointed that rather being innately spontaneous, “professional improvisers develop the ability to listen closely, focus, accept others’ ideas and support one another through improvisation games.”

In its improv manual, Tournier (2001) highlights 10 values including to listen, accept, build, innovate and dare to. In other words, we can argue that improv is supposed to develop processes that can be referred to as executive functions (such as flexibility and fluency), information processing (including binding), in addition to risk taking and perseverance. Although, there is very few psychological science papers on cognitive processes involved in improv, we can highlight that these processes are very similar to those involved in divergent thinking. Beyond this obvious overlap, previous improv papers involved cognitive evaluation.

Cognitive Impact of Improvisation

Improv teachers, learners, and scientists involved in improv (Bermant, 2013Bernstein, 2014) or jazz improvisation (Doyle, 2017) usually demonstrate higher levels of creativity, memory, well-being, and less anxiety, all of which may be possible improv benefits (Bermant, 2013). However, there is little scientific evidence for these supposed benefits.

The emotional impact of improv was only very recently assessed to find it can help reduce anxiety and depression in young and older (27–72 years old) adults (Krueger et al., 2017). At our knowledge, only one study assessed the impact of improv on memory and showed a better ability to remember a dramatic text when played in an improvisation scene condition compared to reading only or writing about the scene or group discussions conditions (Scott et al., 2001).

This result is consistent with the enactment effect (i.e., better memory for performed actions than for verbally encoded action sentences) and the embodied nature of improv (Borghi and Caruana, 2015Hainselin et al., 2017a). In its history, cognitive and physical dimensions of improv were always very important, including its name. In the 1970’s, it was difficult to define improv as an alternative education tool, a theater or sport practice, leading to refer to as theatresport (Johnstone, 1999).

Most of the studies used improv exercises thought to enhance divergent thinking, as free walking (Kuo and Yeh, 2016), in jazz music (Benedek et al., 2014), spontaneous sentences and conversation (Lewis and Lovatt, 2013) or gesture while speaking (Lewis et al., 2015). If there is some evidence that improv increases divergent thinking during adulthood, these researches used laboratory situation with specific exercises, very different from the standard improv courses.

Moreover, they did not use a physical activity control group to distinguish between the divergent thinking due to specific improv courses and physical activity’s effect. Improv games for elementary school children found similar impact on divergent thinking than for adults (Sowden et al., 2015).

In both studies with adults (Lewis and Lovatt, 2013) and children (Sowden et al., 2015), participants only took part in a short session of improv games, but no study assessed the impact of a more ecological improv program with multiple sessions of 1–2 h.

Thus, this study aimed to evaluate the impact of improv on teenagers’ divergent thinking, following a standard course and if it differed from a sports control group. Adolescence is a critical period for cognitive development; there are many improv courses for teenagers in middle school but, as far we know, no scientific study on its impact yet.

Georiga State University
Media Contacts:
Jennifer Rainey Marquez – Georiga State University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.


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