Researcher riffs off brain’s role in improvisation

Paul Mayne // Western NewsDon Wright Faculty of Music professor Andrew Goldman’s work focuses on the cognition of musical improvisation, developing theories compatible with descriptive frameworks from cognitive science and neuroscience.

When you think improvisation, your mind may turn to the likes of John Coltrane or Oscar Peterson. While these giants played traditionally composed tunes, they never seemed to play them the same way twice. Like other masters of musical improvisation, they felt free to inject their own style into a piece.

But why do some musicians have a flare for freelance while others struggle? Why do some embrace Miles Davis’s idea that music isn’t the notes you play, but the notes you don’t play?

By exploring these questions, Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Andrew Goldman hopes to gain a deeper understanding of what shapes different styles of musicians, as well as unlock important secrets of the creative mind.

It is a career pursuit marrying mind and music that he never expected.

Talk about improvisation.

“I was raised in the classical music tradition – piano competitions, clarinet in orchestra, marching band. My life was defined by music,” said Goldman, a concert pianist and composer, who arrived at Western earlier this month, via Columbia University, where he was a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience. “Going to university, I never considered doing anything but music.”

When he arrived at the University of Southern California (USC) as an undergrad, he found some of his friends were expanding their view of music and studying “this cool thing called neuroscience.”

After graduating from USC with a BM in Piano Performance and a BA in Neuroscience, Goldman began working as research assistant in the school’s Brain and Creativity Institute researching the neuroscience of social emotions. With graduate school in mind, he headed to Cambridge University to earn his PhD in the cognition of musical improvisation.

“In music psychology, there is a sort of partitioning as to what kind of music studies you do,” he said. “The musical theorists, the historical musicologists and empirical methods are sometimes separated. But at Cambridge, it is very much integrated. It was a great opportunity to be exposed to other academic approaches and learn to communicate in other domains apart from science.”

Applauding Western’s “thriving music cognition community,” Goldman will be part of the Music, Cognition and The Brain initiative at Western. Led by Music Theory professor Jonathan De Souza, this interdisciplinary initiative brings together faculty members from the Don Wright Faculty of Music, Brain and Mind Institute and National Centre for Audiology to strengthen existing research collaborations in music cognition and neuroscience.

Goldman’s motivation to work in the area of improvisation has changed over the years. Initially interested in being a classical pianist, he felt restricted by rigid rules of play.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s an art tradition. There is a lot of discipline and sensitivity that goes into being able to do that. But, as a composer, I started wondering what my creative role as a musician is. Improvisation seemed to be an interesting middle ground – where it’s performative, but also requires training. I was curious in thinking about that more. I studied neuroscience and applied the theoretical frameworks I had learned there to ask the questions I wanted to ask from my musical experience.”

In a study published in the journal Psychology of Music earlier this year, Improvisation experience predicts how musicians categorize musical structures, Goldman found musicians with the innate skill of improvisation were better than other musicians when it came to distinguishing between chords that could be used interchangeably in a piece of music and chords that cannot.

The study had 40 musicians listen to repeating standard chord progression, which was randomly interspersed with chord variations, asking participants to signal if they heard a chord progression that differed in any way from what they perceived to be the most common chord progression.

The improvisers, most of them trained in jazz, identified the chords unsuitable for substitution faster and more accurately than other musicians. The brains of those with strong improvising skills showed a pattern of electrical activity distinct from non-improvising musicians, Goldman added.

“There are a lot of interesting questions improvisation raises,” he said. “What role does empirical work have to play in answering these questions? One might think science work and empirical work is about finding the correct answer of what is really happening, and for some well-defined questions that might be the case.

“The issue with improvisation is that the questions are not well defined. It is not an issue of finding out what’s really happening; it is more about how can we ask good questions. How can I demonstrate how some questions have empirical tractability and can be investigated?”

With music, Goldman said there is the ability to study improvisation because you find musicians who thrive and those who struggle improvising. His approach is that not all musicians are the same. They learn in different ways and know about music in different ways.

“The task I see is to describe which ways of knowing facilitate the ability to improvise. Cognitive science is good at describing those kind of differences, in how people understand, know and recall knowledge and how their knowledge link to their ability to move and perceive, and we can look for differences between and experienced and inexperienced improvisers,” Goldman said. “That has implications for understanding different ways of learning, teaching, creativity, how we can understand the relationship between different creative behaviours.”

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In 2014, now Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Andrew Goldman wrote and produced a one-act musical entitled Science! The Musical while at Cambridge University. He is hoping to produce the musical, based on the many ideas from his research, here at Western.