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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Cognitively deconstructing musical free improvisation to inform on performance and applied improvisation Chang, Sabrina M.


Musical free improvisation (FI) is a technique or style of performance where conventional musical elements such as tonal centers, melodies, and harmonies are largely forsaken. Instead, FI concerns the unbound exploration and expression of sounds, timbres, textures, and rhythms as per the moment-to-moment desires of the performers. The main research presented in this dissertation centers around understanding the subjective experiences and cognitive dynamics of musicians engaged in this unplanned form of improvisation. This was achieved by asking participants to engage in musical free improvisations that were video-recorded for subsequent viewing and segmentation by the performers. These segmentations provided the framework from which the musicians provided text commentaries and engaged in in-depth discussions with me, the researcher. In a second, smaller project I then explored the impacts of applied improvisational training in a non-performance domain by developing and facilitating theatre-based business improvisation training sessions. With these two studies, I addressed the following questions: (1) what are the predominant themes that emerge as FI performers negotiate the cognitive and social-cognitive dynamics of FI? (2) what are the individual and interpersonal impacts of business improvisation training, and do the findings in this regard support and validate the many anecdotal reports given by others in this domain? (3) how do the cognitive and social-cognitive dynamics found in FI parallel and complement those found in theatre improvisation? and (4) how might the findings regarding free improvisation provide support for the inclusion of FI as a complementary or alternative training method to the more well-known area of applied theatre improvisation? Overall, my findings support two important insights: First, the musical FI findings reveal a novel way to understand how improvisers navigate their performances, as captured by four emergent themes that I ultimately discuss through the lens of enactive cognition. Second, the significance in examining the similarities and differences between the two improvisational domains lies in the potential for the application of musical FI in therapeutic settings where theatre improvisation training is more often used as a treatment intervention.

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