for classical musicians

A psychological approach to improvisation?

Why study psychology in relation to improvisation? What does it mean to take a 'psychological' approach to improvisation? 

The basis of a psychological approach to improvisation means taking an interest in the cognitive (thinking) and emotional processes which result in musical improvisation. While studying cognitive psychology, I discovered that making a systematic study of my own thought processes before, during, and after improvising greatly improved the performance experience (especially at the outset when I felt embarrassed and self-critical); it helped me to focus more constructively, and accelerated my learning of new skills.

The main cognitive issues I like to study are:

  • what kind of knowledge does one need to improvise?
  • what are the changes in knowledge and perspective (of the task, of musical structure, of oneself) during learning?
  • what happens to my improvising when I focus on particular/different aspects of musical texture?
  • what is the relationship between my conscious awareness of learning and unconscious/implicit learning processes?


Feelings pervade our thinking at every level of consciousness, and improvising offers no exception to this rule. Investigating my own emotions while improvising helped me to notice negative and self-critical value judgments I made of the music I created. Its important to articulate emotions involved not only in performance, but also in learning contexts, as Pekrun (2014) suggests: 'Emotions control the students attention, influence their motivation to learn, modify the choice of learning strategies, and affect their self-regulation of learning' (p.6). To help students gain insights into their emotions while improvising I have adapted the Achievement Emotions Questionnaire of Reinhard Pekrun and colleagues (2005) which can be completed before and after an improvising lesson or private practice session. 

To view or complete the questionnaires please use the drop-down menu at the top of the page, or the following links:

Questionnaire 1 - Before Improvising

Questionnaire 2 - After Improvising

Please note that all responses are collected anonymously.

Cultural Values

Learning and performing live improvisation does not take place in an intellectual vacuum. It's impossible to separate our creative actions from the mental constructions which listeners use to understand and receive them. As Leach (1970) writes in his study of Lévi-Strauss: 'the moment some other individual comes onto the scene every action, however trivial, serves to communicate information about the actor to the observer - the observed details are interpreted as signs, because observer and actor are in relation' (p.43). Understanding the cultural values which shape and influence musical creativity requires an effort of analytical thinking and discussion in order to make explicit what is often implicit, customary and habitual. 

Ethnomusicologists such as Stephen Feld and Georgina Born who specialise in uncovering hidden power relations in cultural organisations, offer a method of critical questioning one can apply to one's own situation. For example, in relation to improvising as a classical musician, one can ask:

  • who decides what music is created? 
  • who decides how it is created?




For a full list of publications and academic articles about improvising, please click here