“Anew, we observe what always has been with us – not to discover, much less to invent, but to recognize” (Habraken, 1998, p. 3).
In the previous essays we saw the different ways in which playing drums brings together all of our faculties, channeling them through the instrument to produce a prismatic and harmonic spectrum of sound, culture and personal discipline. To be a drummer means to connect a wide range of complexities: ourselves, the instrument, drum culture, the other musicians, and the demands of the music, the listener and the culture at large.
To play the drumset and make creative music is to bring together sensibilities and experience in an intuitive way to play what matters for the music at that moment. What ‘matters’ depends on the context in which we find ourselves. We navigate different contexts within either a narrow or broad range of appropriateness. These boundaries are broadly delineated by the music, the cultural context, our peers and predecessors, plus personal experience, intuition, logic and collaborative sensibility.
During the immediate present of music-making, thoughts are liberated from their self-directed critiques and the senses are on full alert.
Drummers operate within a broad range of music styles with which we have a variety of cognitive relationships. We are heavily influenced by past and / or present drum culture. Roles and responsibilities differ greatly across genres, with tight arrangements on one end, to improvisation and the creative elements of surprise on the other. One end of the spectrum would find tribute band drummers, cover bands, arena rock, show tune and commercial session drummers, etc. These drummers perform specific arrangements, the strength of which lies not in deviation but in familiarity and consistency.
With regard to consistency and familiarity, these drumset musicians share similarities to the contemporary classical musician, albeit largely without written music (Allison, 2005). Besides faithful rendition, classical musicians often face incredibly complex technical problems and must develop super-human skills.
While at the other end of the spectrum, compositional improvisational drummers generate and refine compositional variations and ideas in real time, altering both the primary parameters (rhythm, melody, harmony) and secondary parameters (tone, timbre, touch, phrasing, etc.) of music.
These limited stylistic examples illustrate only the extreme range of cognitive modes for creative instrument manipulation. There are certainly countless degrees of musical freedom and responsibility between arranged music and improvised music.
A major difference is the degree to which creativity is pre-arranged versus on the fly. For example, the range of choices to be made within the immediate context would be greater for the improvising musician. However, drummers today often must navigate the full range, contributing meaning in widely differing genres with spontaneity and ease.
The distinctions above illustrate the degree to which creative deviations might be deemed appropriate between groups. It is a range between conformity and freedom.
Playing creative, improvised music is generally not a matter of executing or re-creating a detailed ‘part’, one that was previously rehearsed and perfected. Our approach, often loosely structured around a rhythmic motif, energy contour and song form, is part stability (responsibility) and part creativity (freedom).
What happens beyond that emerges from and flows within the complex combination of experience, intuition, logic, context, previous contributions to the music from peers and predecessors, our facility, the limits of our sensory perception and our collaborative spirit. Other factors include input from our own sound, the dialogue we have with the other musicians, energy from the audience and the acoustics of the venue.
Cognition, synchronicity and improvisation
The performance stage is a space where, it is hoped, creative performers collaborate. It is the place where each player brings together their unique sensibilities and experience in collective service to the emergent qualities of both the collaborators and the music.
Think of the performance stage as a metaphor for our internal performance stage, our cognitive capacity. It is the space where all that we are internally and all that we perceive externally converge. Although that space is limited, it is certainly necessary that it be unfettered, unblocked, and free of distractions for collaborative cognition to take place. This space is where the relevant actors – cognition, our sensibilities, experience, logic, intuition and skill - can freely ‘play’, exchange and collaborate.
In any creative moment, we immediately and without conscious effort have access to all that we are up to that moment. This is when the balance and unification of all that we are is the most critical. We may struggle with a performance when we cannot freely access all our sensibilities. The more open, receptive and accessible our abilities are within that internal space, the more we are able to play with ease, comfort, and creativity.
It is a space where both convergent and divergent ideas are generated, selected or rejected.
The creative act explores the combining and re-combining of artifacts from personal experience, from the culture, from context both historic and in the moment, as well as from our peers and predecessors in the drumming community. This may be done either consciously or un-consciously.
Creative improvisation shares “overlapping cognitive – pedagogical goals” (Schyff, 2019, p. 322) with scientific learning. We identify problems that need to be solved, pursue avenues of truth, and take multiple perspectives to validate and expand our ideas. Creative acts are a reflection of the creative possibilities resulting from “deep conceptual understanding”, are dependent upon contextual learning, and connect “integrated knowledge.” We employ “adaptive expertise” all within a context requiring collaborative skills (Sawyer as cited in Schyff, 2019, p.322).
These cognitive ‘executive’ functions take place in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) region of the brain. Within the PFC, the idea-generation and selection phase takes place at a micro-second level. There are variable internal boundaries for appropriateness on one hand, or the degree of novelty on the other. Improvising musicians tend to have a wider range, or deviation, for the ideas they might deem appropriate during the idea generation and selection phase than non-improvisers (Allison, 2005; Kleinmintz, Goldstein, Mayseless, Abecasis, & Shamay-Tsoory, 2014).
What happens when we generate ideas? How much self-mediation and editing is involved in the instantaneous neurological idea-selection or rejection process? How are the deviant limitations of idea-evaluation shaped and defined? How do those limits inhibit (encourage or suppress) the generation of ideas on a personal and cultural level? How does neurological inhibition and enculturation affect creativity, deviation and innovation? And most interestingly, due to its potential for practical application, are these generative and evaluative cognitive skills available to us in non-musical situations? In other words, are the critical cognitive skills we build through music study, performance and improvisation applicable, or transferable, to the multitude tasks, relationships and creative navigations of everyday activities?
It is widely known that there are strong positive cognitive benefits which come from learning a musical instrument. Much of this research focuses on young people in controlled academic music programs, although researches are beginning to look at individuals in a more creative discipline.
Effects include spatial reasoning, neuroplasticity and other fundamental changes, i.e., listening, linguistic and social skills (Herholz & Zatorre, 2012). Neuroplasticity is the continuous structural change and functional reorganization of the brain’s residual neural tissue. In coordination with neural circuitry, plasticity manifests as the brain’s capacity for change.
Research also suggests that musical instrument study improves cognitive, emotional and social functions, executive function and general intelligence, and positively impacts social and academic achievement (Schellenberg, 2011; Rickard, Bambrick, & Gill, 2012; Lareau, 2011; Hille & Schupp, 2013).
In addition, studies from Herholz & Zatorre (2012) show distinct differences in plasticity between the brains of musicians and non-musicians. Taken a step further, recent research also identified differences in brain activity between improvising musicians and non-improvising musicians (Kleinmintz, Goldstein, Mayseless, Abecasis, & Shamay-Tsoory, 2014).
Skills used for improvisation differ from those used in interpretations of a written score or playing from memory. While classical and jazz musicians may share comparable technical facility on their instruments, there are limits to comparisons in creativity.
Improvisation, once the norm during the Baroque era (1650-1750), largely gave way to written music by the late 1700s, and virtually disappeared by the end of the 19th century. Ironically, the improvisation of the Baroque era was viewed as too wild and elitist, yet the scored music of the 18th Century moved toward a more “disciplined” and elitist culture, with wealthy patrons able to commission composers and even have their own orchestras and opera companies.
At the same time the availability of written music made it accessible to a wider range of musicians.
Rameau’s theory of chord structure, the adherence to the fundamentals of the common chord, imposed limitations which became the standard for European classical music and remain so in some circles to this day (Borroff, 1971, as cited in Allison, 2005). “Music was perceived to be a part of the ruling class's domain and privilege, reflecting their supposedly higher spiritual evolution as rulers by God's grace” (Allison, 2005, p. 7).
Class and wealth has played and continues to play a large role in the patrons, musicians and institutions of classical music. To some degree, this same institutionalization of classical music appears to be repeating itself within the Jazz academe. This impacts improvisation, since interpretations of the music become narrower; innovation and creativity are taught rather than assimilated over one’s lifetime and musical development (Wilf, 2014).
Classical musicians are typically trained to not improvise, although this is beginning to change. These musicians learn to place creative emphasis on the non-syntactical parameters of music: touch, timbre, texture, phrasing and dynamics. While both improvisational and classically trained musicians manipulate these parameters, improvising musicians also alter, in real time, the syntactical parameters of music, its rhythm, melody and harmony (Kleinmintz, Goldstein, Mayseless, Abecasis, & Shamay-Tsoory, Expertise in musical improvisation and creativity: The mediation of idea evaluation, 2014).
While some argue that all music is improvisational, herein we make the distinction with regards to the degree of unforeseen composition in the creative act, as well as in the degree of conversing, whether among the members of the ensemble or within the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic structure, as well as the exchange with the listening audience and within the cultural milieu. Here we discuss improvisation as “everything from embellishing given rhythms and melodies while performing, to developing complex and extended variations on musical themes, or to creating entirely new works” (Elliott, 1995, p. 4).
An improviser’s impulsivity for creativity and experimentation means that they are more skilled at taking advantage of opportunities (Dickman, 1990). Research suggests that complex cognitive skills learned though creative music are transferable to other domains, and can make understanding of large concepts across different fields more easy to grasp (Barnett & Ceci, 2005).
Higher-order skills and methods such as perception, communicating, problem-solving, discernment, risk-taking and assessment, personal as well as cultural awareness and understanding, are transferable from the musical function to other domains which may require similar cognitive function. This has far-reaching implications for creative cognitive education.
Research by Timothy J. Buschman at Princeton Neuroscience Institute and Earl K. Miller of the Picower Institute at MIT suggests that slow learning and making conceptual connections across multiple domains can increase the capacity for deep learning:
Extending learning over multiple experiences improves the reliability of the association as ‘noisy’, spurious, correlations are lost and true associations are strengthened. It is also how the ‘deep’ structure of the world can be discovered. It is the commonalities across experiences that reveal general principles and concepts. Although they come at the cost of requiring more time to develop, such generalized principles have several advantages. First, abstract representations are, by definition, more ‘compact’ than a more detailed one. Second, generalized principles allow you to act intelligently in a novel situation. Because abstract representations lack non-critical details, they more easily generalize to new circumstances […] The advantage of such slow-learning in pre-frontal cortex is that it allows learning to integrate over more experiences, constructing a more generalized representation. These generalized representations are crucial to acting appropriately when faced with a new situation (Buschman & Miller, 2014, p. 2).
Research from Tarek Amer et al. (2013) shows evidence of near-transfer benefits, the transfer of skills from one cognitive activity that enhance the skill in another closely related activity. For example, the shared cognitive benefits from long-term high level music performance and from learning more than one language. There is ample evidence of near-transfer skills such as “control over the focus of our attention and the integration of sensory and motor information” and possible “far-transfer effects involving working memory, attention regulation and conflict resolution of non-auditory tasks” (Amer, Kalender, Hasher, Trehub, & Wong, 2013, p. 1).
High levels of concentration are enhanced by neural synchronicity, when regions of neural activity synchronize oscillations of gamma waves. High frequency oscillations of gamma waves are associated with complex cognitive activity, such as creative improvisation. This synchronicity, or neural networks that are in phase, is a powerful enhancement for cognitive control, as well as releasing brain activity from detailed yet limited critical analysis to more broad conceptual activity.
Miller and Buschman suggest that “synchrony may not only control communication between networks, it may actually form the networks themselves” (2015, p. 116). They add that “dynamic formation of ensembles by oscillatory synchrony may underlie cognitive flexibility: our ability to rapidly change thoughts and behavior from one moment to the next” (p. 116). High vibration neural synchronicity may play a significant role in the rapidly changing problem-finding and problem-solving of improvisation.
We scan for musical problems, which we either select or reject as potential areas of exploration.
To improvise is to create, to compose, alter, or build upon impromptu using the tools available at the moment. At the highest levels of cognition, it is creative, live composition and experimentation. To improvise is to explore multiple perspectives, typically within the framework of a previously established musical event, with intent to alter, reflect, and/or expand it creatively.
It is functional impulsivity (Mayseless, Uzefovsky, Shalev, Ebstein, & Shamay-Tsoory, 2013; Kleinmintz, Goldstein, Mayseless, Abecasis, & Shamay-Tsoory, 2014). In improvisational art, the process is the product. Improvisation emphasizes the creative process over the product.
Musical improvisation is the complex cognitive process of finding musical problems and then solving them (Sawyer, 2000). Function within this constant tension fosters divergent thinking, the ability to produce multiple answers to a single problem.
This continual work of searching for opportunities develops creative wisdom, and is largely cultivated in the navigation of unfamiliar or uncertain complex environments, for example, reaching beyond our comfort zone.
The range of ideas generated for a particular problem may be greater in improvisers since the range of appropriate possibilities is greater, due to reduced latent inhibition (Nijstad, De Dreu, Rietzschel, & Baas, 2010). These inhibitors in the idea-evaluation phase are built through enculturation and training and serve to limit creative ideas.
Research from Kleinmintz et al suggests that “the effect of training that involves decreasing the activity of the evaluation system may be to increase creative output” (Kleinmintz, Goldstein, Mayseless, Abecasis, & Shamay-Tsoory, Expertise in musical improvisation and creativity: The mediation of idea evaluation, 2014).
It is important to practice free play and non-critical focus of attention, and allow for a broad range of ideas to be generated, whether consciously or not.
R. G. Collingwood makes a strong distinction between the problem-finding of improvised art, and the problem-solving of craft. In his 1938 book The Principles of Art, Collingwood states that “[craft] involves a distinction between planning and execution. The result to be obtained is preconceived or thought out before being arrived at” (p. 15).
This is not to dichotomize all artistic performance into those of arranged compositions and those which are improvised, since all performers and artists make use of cliché or artefacts from their predecessors within their domain in some way (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). But not all musicians improvise to the degree of alteration, modification and application done by jazz musicians. There is wide-ranging potential for improvising across the spectrum of music, and the distinction is not as disparate as Collingwood suggests.
Often the creative process seems at odds with the technical mind. Training can positively or negatively influence the output generated in the idea generation and evaluation phase. It’s important to have work that results in “decreasing the activity of the evaluation system” and releases our conscious self-directed critical analysis and allows intuition and critical reflection in-action (Elliott, 1995) to take over.
But creativity is not an un-conscious act. “To create something means to make it non-technically, but yet consciously and voluntarily” (Collingwood, 1938, p. 128). The creative artist lives in a world of problem-finding, constantly searching for a visual or musical problem.
John Coltrane seems to have lived his musical life finding problems and attempting to solve them through never-ending improvisation and collaboration. The work of Pablo Picasso is the result of the artist’s obsession with searching for and solving problems.
The finished work is not the real work of art. The collective creative process creates an ephemeral emergent dialogue which in itself constitutes the creative product. “In most creative genres, the creative process is a constant balance between finding a problem and solving that problem, and then finding a new problem during the solving of the last one” (Sawyer, 2000).
Creative improvisation is rapid-fire neurological impulses, operating in a highly complex synaptic template. The PFC is highly activated during improvisation. During improvisation there is rapid neurological idea-generation, idea-evaluation and idea-selection / rejection, although this sequence of events may or may not occur in a linear pattern.
Ideas, the result of experience, logic, intuition and impulse, are also heavily influenced by prior events: they are patterns of evaluation framed by immediate prior events, cultural context and norms. In this sense they are emergent.
Idea evaluation is a rapid-fire conscious or unconscious combination of novelty or appropriateness (Sternberg & Lubart, 1999; Kleinmintz, Goldstein, Mayseless, Abecasis, & Shamay-Tsoory, 2014) that is rooted in enculturation. The amount of deviation, how far outside the norm of acceptable creative ideas, correlates with neural inhibition, or internal neural regulation.
The improviser, the audience and the culture at large (media, diversity, institutions, iconic figures, etc.) are complicit in creating a dynamic framework which collectively define the limits of what may be deemed an acceptable degree of deviation. Collingwood clearly suggests that “the artist stands thus in collaborative relations with an entire community” (1938, p. 324, cited in Sawyer, 2000, p. 156).
It should be noted that original and creative ideas are not defined simply by how far outside the norm of acceptability they may be. Adding jalapeño peppers to an apple pie may tick the ‘originality’ category, but it won’t win the baking contest. It’s simply not good.
Creative and innovative improvisational ideas are derived through, among other channels, empathic, multi-lateral perspectives and presented within a specific cultural context. They are the complex rearranging and restating of familiar themes in the moment and with relevance to it.
Creative ideas in any medium cannot be measured on a scale of conformity or deviation. Creativity cannot be measured solely on how far an idea deviates outside a ‘norm’. This limited and perverse view of creativity and originality is nothing more than deviation for the sake of deviation, or hipsterism. But in the art world, it can fetch astonishing sums.
Still, conformity - adherence to established norms - and other factors do serve to entrench conservative limitations on creativity and often set perceived boundaries for innovation. What largely feeds and determines complex cognitive idea generation is the brain’s ability to operate within the range of cultural limits and openness, together with knowledge and insight into how to break rules ‘appropriately’, both of which are tied to experience (Elliott, 1995).
Most often this happens spontaneously without premeditation. Ideas and their selection within or outside the range of novelty or appropriateness is a rapid, un-conscious neurological act honed through the practice and performance of contextual improvisation. Conscious thought yields to a kind of defocusing, which allows creativity to flow. For improvisers, decreased activity in the evaluation phase (decreased inhibition) increases the potential for creative output (Kleinmintz, Goldstein, Mayseless, Abecasis, & Shamay-Tsoory, 2014).
Jazz improvisers generate a broad range of possibilities (divergent) and train themselves to not block ideas. And they must also cultivate musical intuition to select appropriate creative ideas to be explored further. This meta-knowledge or meta-cognition is described by Elliott (1995) as “the disposition and ability to monitor, adjust, balance, manage, oversee and otherwise regulate one’s own musical thinking, both in-action (in the moment) and over the long term development of one’s musicianship” (p. 9).
Rapid, real-time assessments, locating options and choosing possible outcomes are a continuous part of our work. Elliot describes it as “critical reflecting in-action” (1995, p.9):
"Informal musical knowledge involves the ability to reflect critically in action. Reflecting critically depends, in turn, on knowing when and how to make musical judgments. And knowing how to make musical judgments depends on a situational understanding of the standards and traditions of musical practice that ground and surround specific kinds of music-making […] During a jazz improvisation, improvisers are continuously reflecting in and on their actions in relation to their knowledge of where they are presently ‘located’ and where they intend to ‘travel’ moment to moment in a given harmonic, melodic and rhythmic context" (pp. 8-9).
Well beyond the tangible, music-related skills we typically associate with practice, the skills we gain as improvising musicians enhance our critical abilities in general, and are not limited to music-making. They can be readily accessible and applicable across multiple domains (Buschman & Miller, 2014).
The practice of improvisation elevates our ability to sniff out, evaluate and solve problems in any endeavor, not just music. These evaluation systems are part of a complex system of neuro-pathways that exerts cognitive control across multiple domains. The skills are developed through use and are transferable to related tasks as well as unrelated tasks (Amer, Kalender, Hasher, Trehub, & Wong, 2013).
Within the PFC, deep practice not only develops the critical pathways that we use to accomplish complex cognitive tasks (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993), but these highly focused cognitive and critical evaluation systems are transferable to other complex cognitive activities. Some of the same suite of neurons and pathways that we build through slow, deliberate practice are interchangeable and are used in improvisation through neural mixed selectivity (Kleinmintz, Goldstein, Mayseless, Abecasis, & Shamay-Tsoory, Expertise in musical improvisation and creativity: The mediation of idea evaluation, 2014). Mixed selectivity makes our cognitive skills available, through synchronicity of neural networks, extendable and transferable to other unrelated complex cognitive tasks. Mixed selectivity also extends our critical cognitive skills to other non-music related areas that require complex cognition.
Creative acts can arise from intensely deliberate and organized events. They can leap out unexpectedly as spontaneous surprises or even accidents, and bits may also emerge from entirely technical experimentation. There is important potential for the flexible use of our neural capacity for creating.
Superseding the extremes of thought or chance, a state of being in which we are fully present places us at the crucial pivot between all that is and all that could be.
These valuable skills are manifested and reinforced through behaviors which give rise to neural synchronization, the synchronizing of neural activity which strengthens the impact of the network. Complex cognitive tasks which require these high-order executive cognitive functions share common neurological structures, such as during heightened concentration or when playing a musical instrument, etc.
The cognitive functions requiring such synchronization of networks has the potential to expand and integrate into activities which can then make use of these unique capacities (Miller & Buschman, 2015).
The information provided above regarding synchronous neural activity, near- and far-transfer of skills, and improvisation as divergent thinking, may at first seem impractical in the present context for the drumset musician. I have presented these connections herein to shine some light on the potential for expanded consciousness available through the discipline of drumset study. The neurological functions which regulate awareness, concentration, the propensity for curiosity and discovery, skills for communication and collaboration, creative risk-taking and problem-solving, in sum, the entire personal discipline of the creative drumset musician, can be employed in a broad range of circumstances and affairs.
To summarize, autonomous learning facilitates the acquisition of complex problem solving skills plus conceptual- and contextual-based understanding. Making relevant links and connections between fine details and broader concepts and contexts in the learning process creates a synchronous neural network able to function across multiple domains.
It builds a network with the potential for mixed selectivity (Rigotti, et al., 2013), neural networks which represent complex, transferable cognitive skills. These transferable skills can be used in complex cognitive tasks separate from the context in which they were built. This is a valuable, multi-dimensional structural template for complex music-making and problem solving, easily expanded to include empathic development and nothing less than the evolution of our consciousness.
Proof of far-transfer of skills is illusive in behavioral science research. Some research suggests that previous experience guides us in goal-driven behavior (Buschman & Miller, 2014). Such ‘top-down’ control allows us to predict outcomes, prepare a plan and work towards goals, even with no prior experience of reaching that particular goal. This suggests that prior skills and experiences provide paths to new experiences, and that one can make assumptions about outcomes based on previous experiences.
Other research suggests near-transfer of skills but struggles to provide evidence of far-transfer of skills, skills which are transferable to domains which share little commonality (Sala, et al., 2019).
Such research is complex and more is needed to prove the connectedness involved in successful deep learning, and to alter the education system from one of sequential information provision to one of experiential learning through autonomous connection-making. This will be discussed in the next chapter.
Behavioral neuroscience aside, I can speak confidently from my own anecdotal evidence (that’s humor) that the things I learned and developed through serious drumset study have been profoundly transferable to virtually all aspects of my life. Here are just a few of the near- and far- transferable skills which arose from my deep relationship with the instrument:
- Focusing attention
- Setting goals
- Organizational and prioritizing skills
- Principled action
- Strategies for achieving goals
- Spatial reasoning
- Conceptual understanding
- Cultural relationships
- Communication and collaboration
- Finding problems
- Solving problems
- Support and diplomacy
- Personal integrity
- Risk-taking and assessment
- Accuracy of perception
- Being present
- Convergent, divergent ideas
- Perspective taking
These attributes have been invaluable to me in virtually everything I’ve done since developing them.
Text-in-context is emergent content which carries its own meaning while creatively appropriate or complementary to the context into which it is presented or to the context by which it is represented. It is what we contribute beyond the basic architectural framework of the music. However, the relevance of the content we contribute is dependent upon its ability to be absorbed into, provide contrast to, or harmonize the structure of, the context. Our improvisations are a product of, a reaction to, and have an influence on, the context.
As creative musicians working within a specified structure or song framework we are simultaneously working within a context, creating a context and contributing ideas within that context: text-in-context. The relevance of what we contribute depends upon the context in which it is immediately presented, although context is not limited to the immediate framework of the music of the moment. As players we also exist in a broader context, and can potentially reference past players or even our own past performance.
Improvisational music is primarily responsive to context. It is improvised composition. Specifically, it is conversing within a context. Ideas developed or practiced in isolation must be flexible enough in their execution to adapt to the ever-changing context created by the other musicians in the moment. This important flexibility can be called musical accountability and requires critical development of one’s sensibilities.
Rudiments and technique on their own are detached from music; it is we who must give them life and possess the sensibility to adapt to or innovate within a variety of environments. Learning licks and grooves from recorded music will not transfer to a new context without careful, intuitive modification and adaptation to occupy their new context.
As improvisers we are creating a story within a story through complex layering. This requires multi-dimensional awareness, not to mention instrument mastery. This deep mental capacity is excavated through, among other things, artful deliberate practice. The capacity for complex musical ability does not come from accumulative technical ability alone. The capacity for mastery of the complex cognitive skills that we use in creative music-making arises from the development of the internal skills and sensibilities that result from practicing the technical and the physical. Musicianship is an order of magnitude above technical ability.
Thanks for reading.
--Brett F. Campbell, 2021