Memory and improvisation

KeithJarrettHaving just watched “Keith Jarrett – the Art of Improvisation”, I’ve been wondering about how improvisers use memory. Jarrett is a universally acclaimed master of jazz piano improvisation, who’s astonishingly intense physical performances glitter with amazing technique and dense contrapuntal textures. He talks about being “in the zone” when improvising, where thought and intuition are merged, and the music just “tells you what to play”. But although all of Jarrett’s music is improvised, he has an enormous memory bank of jazz standards and musical knowledge.

Solo improvisation is perhaps even more of a musical hire wire act than playing from memory. For those who have to ask: no, improvising is not ‘just making stuff up on the spot’. Like any other form of expert musical skill, improvisation requires creativity, hard work and a good memory. Learning to improvise has been compared with “learning a second language”. Like speech, in order to make sense, improvised music must be based on certain syntactical rules. Improvising involves intuitively constructing novel ‘sentences’ in real time from a lexicon of acceptable notes and idiomatic phrases, without needing to consciously reason through every step of the process. Sometimes musicians strive to ‘play what they hear’ in their head, and sometimes the music just flows.

Much of improvisation depends on the ability to extemporise new melodies to fit a harmonically and rhythmically constrained sequence – the standard ‘12-bar blues’ for example. Musicians must be aware of chords and keep track of where they are in the sequence, while being responsive to what other musicians are playing and what has gone before. Improvisation requires not only an original idea, but also a plan of how that idea will unfold. Therefore, creating new musical phrases and chord voicings on the hoof involves processing and evaluating intermediate results in working memory [1]. The notion that there is no such thing as a wrong note when improvising comes from the fact that talented improvisers are able to evaluate and respond creatively to ‘mistakes’ as they arise, weaving them fluently into the music.

As you might expect, neuroscientists have started to investigate neural activity during musical improvisation. Functional MRI studies of musicians asked to create a simple melody or rhythm using a very limited 5-note keyboard-like response box indicate that areas of the brain thought to be involved in movement coordination, voluntary selection and auditory sequence generation were all activated during improvisation [2]. Put simply, improvisers create various possible phrases, then select and play just one of them. Functional MRI has also been used to watch the brains of jazz pianists either improvising or playing “over-learned” music on a 35-note piano keyboard [3]. (The logistics of playing a keyboard inside an MRI machine are left to the imagination of the reader!) During improvisation, higher activity was observed in an area of the brain attributed to self-expression, with lower activity in an area attributed to self-monitoring. These results were explained by drawing on the idea that spontaneous musical composition relies on intuition rather than pure reasoning. Interestingly, when one pianist improvised with another musician (‘trading fours’) – the musical equivalent of having a conversation – the areas of the brain involved in language were activated. Here’s John’s Hopkins neurosurgeon Charles Limb giving a TED talk about the neuroscience of improvisation:

Sadly, in modern Western culture, improvisation has become largely the preserve of jazz musicians. There is no good reason for this. Classical improvisation used to be commonplace and considered central to the conception of music itself; Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Schubert, Liszt and Debussy were all said to be exceptional improvisers. Depressingly though, even Jarrett felt he had to “pretty much give up jazz” in order to do justice to classical music. Improvisation is also fundamental to the music of other cultures, such as classical Indian music where ragas are largely improvised around a particular tonal framework.

Ultimately, anyone can improvise – we all do so every day when talking – and the more you practise, the better you get. There is no reason to constrain improvisation to any particular musical genre – it’s not only a lot of fun, but also an important musical skill that can avert potential disaster when a memory lapse strikes. Perhaps it’s time to incorporate improvisation into both standard music teaching and regular practice.


[1] Johnson-Laird, P.N., How Jazz Musicians Improvise, Music Perception 19 (2002); 415-442

[2] Berkowitz, A.L. & Ansari, D., Generation of novel motor sequences: The neural correlates of musical improvisation, NeuroImage 41 (2008); 535-543

[3] Limb, C.J. & Braun, A.R., Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: an fMRI study of Jazz Improvisation, PLoS One 3 (2008); e1679

See also:

Martinez, A.R., The Improvisational Brain, SEED magazine, 14 December (2010)


About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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