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Further discussion on learning (1)


When I improvise, what is it that I learn?

1. I will experience learning through implicit processes, i.e. unconsciously.

2. I will experience learning through explicit processes, i.e. reflectively, of which I am aware.

What do I then retain from these experiences for the future? In what way have I developed?


VARIABLES (Can also be discussed under the 'goals' of the improviser)

1. I have a certain knowledge and disposition which I bring to the task.

2. I also have certain goals, set by myself, or my teacher. These goals, in all probability will form the focus of my attention while improvising. They will play an important role in the nature of feedback.

As this discussion has immediately raised the subject of implicit/explicit learning, here are some further thoughts about the distinctive characteristics of these different yet complimentary processes:

Nick Ellis (2011) makes the following observations:

  • Implicit learning is acquisition of knowledge about the underlying structure of a complex stimulus environment by a process that takes place naturally, simply, and without conscious operations (p.38)
  • Explicit learning is a more conscious operation, where the individual attends to particular aspects of the stimulus array and volunteers and tests hypotheses in a search for structure (p.38)


Paradis (1994): ‘... that the memory system that subserves the formal learning of a second language (declarative memory) is neurofunctionally and anatomically different from the one that subserves the first language or a foreign language acquired in conversational settings (procedural memory)’ (p.393).

Ellis (2011): ‘Explicit learning is supported by neural systems in the prefrontal cortex involved in attention, the conscious apperception of stimuli, and working memory; the consolidation of explicit memories involves neural systems in the hippocampus and related limbic structures. In contrast, implicit learning and memory are localised, among other places, in various areas of perceptual and motor cortex’ (p.38).

Ellis (2011, p.40). There are different types of knowledge of and about language, stored in different areas of the brain, and engendered by different types of educational experience.

The preceding quotations propose that it is explicit functions which govern attentional systems, and involves emotional states. Implicit learning in contrast runs in an automatic fashion through processes of perception and motor coordination. Paradis (1994) has already implied that the essential elements of performance are learned implicitly and performed implicitly, i.e.,

It appears that what has been acquired incidentally is stored implicitly and can only be evidenced through behaviour (performance) (Paradis, 1994, p.401).

But what exactly do we retain from the engagement of implicit mechanisms? Presumably information which organises the action of improvisation, for after all, we know that we cannot coordinate our actions directly, but only in relation to a perceived point (i.e., Hommel et al. 2001, p.876, who conclude that: '... coordinating actions and events is much easier in terms of distal than proximal representations'). However, is the information resulting from implicit mechanisms sufficient for the task of improvisation? In my experience I would say no. I am currently practising various tasks in baroque improvisation. Tasks, such as harmonising chorale melodies in a German baroque style, or accompanying a phrase of gregorian chant as a cantus firmus in the French style, demand a knowledge (perception) of a given body of music to the extent that I can generate new music in this style on demand.' When I place my hands on the keyboard I need more than motor memory to see me through at this stage of learning! For this particular genre of improvisation the musical material must be highly organised to be a convincing representation of the style. I find that at the outset of each practice session I have very little idea of what I should do. After a few attempts at harmonising, my developing knowledge is engaged and certain patterns emerge. However, in general, much testing of choices and pauses for thought (and also for writing solutions) characterises my improvising, and any attempt to perform in this style (at this stage) would, I think, be doomed to failure.

Expert knowledge on the other hand is generally characterised by fluency. According the words of performers theselves, and the assertions of researchers into memory and human performance, their improvisation is generally conducted unconsciously. What then is the nature of their knowledge? Is it merely quantitative, i.e., does the expert simply remember more connections, more characteristic chord progressions (or contrapuntal textures, or cadences etc.) with their corresponding hand movements than I do? Or is the knowledge more qualitative in essence, being linked to, or integrated within a host of other cognitive, emotional and perceptive mechanisms? Why can't the knowledge of the expert be simply explained to a novice? Why does the novice themselves have to experience over time the nature of the musical material to attain expert insights? Note that Johnson-Laird (2002) asserts:

‘... whenever a creative process calls for working memory, it is likely to depend on a multistage procedure’ (p.239).

So, what are the various stages of a 'multistage procedure', and why is it necessary that human skill learning should be such a lengthy and subtle process? Clearly, by now, we can describe expert performance as primarily unconscious; presumably then, it is a necessary condition of unconscious performance that it takes considerable time to develop. In addition, we can assume that the material which we are learning to manipulate is poses problems which are extremely complex to master and to understand; that mastery of this material cannot be understood singly, but is the result of a plurality of experience, occuring sequentially (one step in the knowledge base must be assimilated before another can be perceived) over time; and that the resulting codes or representations of knowledge used by expert improvisers refer to a multilayered, multi-experiential database which cannot (for example) be transfered to a third party. 


Surely it makes sense then to look to general theories of cognitive development for illumination of this process, as (I have no doubt) that expert skill, resulting as it does from such a considerable investment of time, attention and cognitive resources, should be described in terms of cognitive growth. 

One aspect of learning which seems to me overlooked by researchers, is the fact that the novice often cannot bring his (implicit) critical or evaluative faculties to bear on his own work. That some rules of music construction are unconsciously perceived seems to be beyond question, i.e., Tillmann & Bigand (2004):

By mere exposure to musical pieces, Western listeners acquire sensitivity to the regularities underlying tonal music. This implicitly acquired knowledge allows listeners to perceive subtle relations between musical events and permits musically untrained listeners to behave as musically trained listeners ... (p.211) 

So why, then must the pupil Josephus, in Joseph Fux's (1725) famous treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, be explicitly instructed in rules of counterpoint which exist primarily to avoid unpleasant acoustic effects:

'This mi against fa you have written in the progression from the sixth to the seventh bar by a skip of  an augmented fourth or tritone which is hard to sing and sounds bad, for which reason it is forbidden in strict counterpoint (Fux, transl. Mann, 1971, p.35)

If these rules reflect all that is natural and pleasing to the ear, why cannot Josephus apply his listening and critical faculties to his own work? Nor do I need to look towards literature for illustrations of this problem, as in my own case, when I am harmonising a chorale: why is it that I can be utterly convinced of a solution while writing (a certain chord or distribution of voices), only to find that later such a solution is clearly wrong and inadequate? Why is 'doing' so far removed from 'hearing'? Is it simply a question of attention, which is claimed by selected goals of learning at certain stages? While desperately trying to fulfill certain goals, do we simply fail to notice other problems? I notice that Johnson-Laird also comments on this phenomenon when he refers to Perkins' (1981) description of '... the fundamental paradox of creativity: people are better critics than creators.' And that artistic creativity '... is based on unconscious knowledge acquired only by laborious practice in creating' (p.422). However, this offers no more than a description of the problem, which it is implied will resolve itself over time. The alignment of skill with the unconscious perception of rules (proportion, beauty etc.) is presumably a goal of skill learning, but more information is needed to (i) explain why this misalignment should occur in the first place, and (ii) through what processes or stages of development are these two different areas brought into alignment?



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