Free Improvisation in Music Groups

There’s almost no research on group musical improvisation, and I’ve wondered about that for years. I’m a jazz pianist, and I’m fascinated by how different people can come together, and collectively create something that no one could have thought of alone.

So I’m excited to see a new study, of group free improvisation in music trios.* Two of my most respected British colleagues co-authored the study: Graeme Wilson and Raymond MacDonald.

They brought together 3 trios of improvising musicians, from Scotland and the North of England. The musicians were from a range of backgrounds, including voice and electronics. And just for extra measure, they also studied 2 more trios of visual artists who work with sound performance. The trios improvised in a studio for about five minutes. Then, the researchers interviewed each performer separately, replaying the tape of their improvisation, and asking them to explain “what they understood to be communicated by their own and other improvisers’ contributions” (p. 1032).

The main finding was that the musicians spent a lot of time thinking about whether to “maintain” what they were playing, or to “change” to something different. If they decided to change, either it was an initiation on their part, or a response to someone else’s contribution.  This is an “active and iterative” process.

If a change was a response, it was either an adoption (doing something really similar to the other musician’s initiation), an augmentation (adopting one element of the partner, but modifying another element), or a contrast (play something really different, but that’s complementary). Here’s the bottom line:

The representation is of an open-ended iterative cycle where all choices lead to a subsequent reconsideration, with each trio member constantly “scanning” the emergent sound of the piece and actions of their collaborators. The improvisation was sometimes characterized by interviewees as an external entity or process, within which events arose independently of those creating it. (p. 1035)

That’s exactly my own experience with group improvisation, and in my own research, every musician that I interviewed spoke in very similar terms, about iteration, interaction, and the emergence of something greater than the individual musicians.

* Wilson, Graeme B., Macdonald, Raymond A. R. (2016). Musical choices during group free improvisation: A qualitative psychological investigation. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 1029-1043.

Avoid “Culture Fit” If You Want Innovation

Some companies have started to hire only people who “fit” into their “culture,” according to an article by Rachel Feintzeig in the Wall Street Journal. Innovation research shows that this is a horrible idea.

These companies have applicants do a “culture fit test” before they’re hired. For example, G Adventures has job candidates climb down into a play pit full of brightly colored plastic balls, and then play a “spin the wheel” game where they answer personal questions, in front of three current employees.

  • has tried using “cultural ambassadors” to evaluate job finalists.
  • gives veto power to senior company veterans. They can reject a potential hire if they decide the candidate doesn’t fit in, even when the candidate is otherwise fully qualified.

The career website found “that human-resources staff, when considering recent college hires, ranked cultural fit above a candidate’s referrals, coursework and grades.” (If you’re not white and male, this probably isn’t a surprise. And you’re probably not excited by the idea of playing a spin the wheel game, with three white guys, in a pit full of balls.)

These practices block innovation. We know from creativity research that the most innovative teams have cognitive diversity. That means that each person has a different set of ideas, practices, and knowledge. This drives innovation, because the most creative ideas combine very different ideas. If everyone in the group has the same cognitive material inside their skull, they won’t make those “distant combinations” that result in breakthrough creativity.

If you want innovation, avoid culture fit!

Can Colleges Be More Innovative? (And if so, why?)

It seems that everyone is calling for colleges to be more innovative. You’ve probably heard something like this: “Colleges are resistant to innovation. How many institutions have remained unchanged for 500 years? Only the Catholic church and the college. A student from 400 years ago would be right at home on today’s campus.” et cetera… This lack of innovation seems strange, because colleges are filled with innovation: research professors generate breakthrough research, engineering professors invent new technologies, and medical professors invent new drugs and surgery procedures.

I just read a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education that reports on a provocative article in the Washington Monthly, an attack on colleges for their lack of innovation. The article also describes a panel at the Washington think tank “New America” with three award-winning college innovators. Here’s a summary of the conversation.

First, most of the lack of innovation isn’t really the college’s fault. If the incentives that colleges work with don’t change, then why should they change? Incentives like public rankings, student demand and application numbers, total tuition revenue.

Second, innovation implies that you have to be the first person to ever do something. But some of the most important changes happen when a college borrows and adapts something that’s already been proven elsewhere. The pressure to innovate often leads university administrators to do something new just because it’s new, when they could get more mileage out of borrowing, adapting, and tweaking (see “incentives”–they aren’t rewarded for borrowing something that already works).

Third, many are calling for innovations in how to provide more flexibility for students. But flexibility can lead to fraud and abuse. Colleges have many legal requirements and constraints that block changes.

Fourth, when institutions change, some students benefit but others suffer. That’s why so many university administrators are cautious–they want to protect and help their students. It’s easier to get fired for doing something new that visibly hurts a student, than it is to get fired for continuing to do the same thing.

Most of what colleges call “innovation” are incremental changes, not breakthrough reinventions of the institution: things like modifying a degree requirements, or adding a new computer technology to the classroom. So, what sort of innovation do we want from colleges? What sort do we think they really need?

Finally, be suspicious when politicians call for innovation in higher education. What they usually mean is, we’re going to cut your budget. And if you complain about it, you’re just not being innovative.