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Improvising Creativity

Definitions of the word “improvise” include “to compose, play, recite, or sing on the spur of the moment, without previous preparation” and “to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available.”

One of the elements of creativity tests such as the widely used Torrance Test of Creative Thinking is questions about “unusual uses” – such as, “How many uses can you think of for a tin can?”

That sounds like a cognitive sort of improvisation.

You can see drawings by children and adults who took the Torrance Test, plus evaluations by creativity scholars James C. Kaufman and Kyung Hee Kim, in the post How Creative Are You?

The photo is Keith Jarrett. His page lists his albums and notes he “has come to be recognized as one of the most creative musicians of our times – universally acclaimed as an improviser of unsurpassed genius.”

In 1964, another pianist, Terry Riley, created his seminal work “In C” – a “structured improvisation full of repetition and tonal permutations” that one critic described as “music like none other on earth.” A magazine article with those comments also quoted Riley: “The highest point of music for me is to become in a place where there is no desire, no craving, wanting to do anything else. It is the best place you have ever been, and yet there is nothing there.” [AARP The Magazine March-April 2003]

You can hear samples from the album “Terry Riley: In C” at

What is going on in the brains of improvisers?

In an earlier post of mine, Improvising and the Brain, I mentioned the research of hearing specialist and sax player Charles J. Limb, who studied the brains of highly skilled jazz musicians while they are creating music.

Limb says his studies have revealed that “creativity is a whole-brain activity. When you’re doing something that’s creative, you’re engaging all aspects of your brain. During improvisation, the prefrontal cortex of the brain undergoes an interesting shift in activity, in which a broad area called the lateral prefrontal region shuts down, essentially so you have a significant inhibition of your prefrontal cortex.”

He explains, “These areas are involved in conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of actions you’re about to implement.”

Also see the article Musical Creativity and the Brain, by Mónica López-González, Ph.D., and Charles Limb, M.D.

Science writer Jonah Lehrer notes an example of musical improvising to get a gig.

He writes, ‘Al Kooper didn’t know what to play. He’d told some half-truths to get into Bob Dylan’s recording session — the musicians were working on some song tentatively titled “Like A Rolling Stone” — and Kooper had been assigned the Hammond organ. There was only one problem: Kooper didn’t play the organ. He was a guitarist.

‘The first takes were predictably terrible — Kooper was just trying not to get kicked out of the studio. But on take four, he suddenly found his chords. Kooper’s playing was pure improv — “I was like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch,” he would later remember — but he ended up inventing one of the most famous organ riffs in modern music.’

From Creation on Command, by Jonah Lehrer, SEED magazine May 6, 2009.

Same mental muscles as language?

In another article, he describes research by Harvard neuroscientist Aaron Berkowitz and colleagues on the brain activity underlying musical improv, by doing brain scans of expert pianists while they improvised.

Lehrer writes, “As expected, the act of improv led to a surge of activity in a variety of neural areas, including the premotor cortex and the inferior frontal gyrus. The premotor activity is simply an echo of execution, as the new musical patterns are translated into bodily movements.

“The inferior frontal gyrus, however, has primarily been investigated for its role in language and the production of speech. Why, then, is it so active when people improvise music? Berkowitz argues that expert musicians invent new melodies by relying on the same mental muscles used to create a sentence; every note is like another word. Of course, the development of these patterns requires years of practice, which is why Berkowitz compares improvisation to the learning of a second language.”

From Basketball and Jazz, by Jonah Lehrer, Frontal Cortex, Wired mag., June 6, 2011.

He covers much more about improvising and other aspects of creativity in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works (an Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2012.)

“The freshness of the fleeting moment.”

Video: “Improvisation Is …” – Stephen Nachmanovitch

Musician Stephen Nachmanovitch describes the experience of improvising in his book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art.

He writes in the Introduction: “One of the things I love best is to give totally improvised solo-concerts on violin and viola. There is something energizing and challenging about being one-to-one with the audience and creating a piece of work that has both the freshness of the fleeting moment and – when everything is working – the structural tautness and symmetry of a living organism. It can be a remarkable and often moving experience in direct communication.”

He adds that his experience of playing in this way “is that ‘I’ am not ‘doing something;’ it’s more like following, or taking dictation. This is, of course, a feeling that has been expressed many times by composers, poets, and other artists.

“There is the story of one of Bach’s pupils asking him, ‘Papa, how do you ever think of so many tunes?’ to which Bach replied, ‘My dear boy, my greatest difficulty is to avoid stepping on them when I get up in the morning.'”

Is music improv creative?

In her article Arts Praxis – A Model for Teaching Creative Vocal Jazz Improvisation, Patrice Madura Ward-Steinman, Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Education Department at Indiana University, notes that “Many music teachers consider improvisation to be a creative musical activity, without questioning whether student improvisations are really ‘creative.’ Others claim that improvisation skill is not dependent on creativity, and suggest that while anyone can create a solo, that solo may or may not be ‘creative.’

“No significant correlations were found between the improvisations of college jazz singers and their Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking scores, yet musical creativity emerged as a factor. This factor accounted for a very small amount of variance, suggesting that an effective jazz improvisation solo may not be primarily a creative activity.”

Drama improv

In her recent interview with Jonah Lehrer, Patt Morrison asked him if he could do theatrical improv, and Lehrer replied: “I had the pleasure of attending some Second City classes in Hollywood. I was actually thinking about doing it, but I saw how good they were, and I was…so intimidated.”

[By the way, The Second City Training Center / Los Angeles is listed on my Inner Actor site Resources Page.]

I can relate. Years ago, I took a few acting classes, and my terror at the improv exercises is one reason I chose to pursue writing, not performing.

But even actors can feel intimidated. Alison Lohman (“White Oleander,” “Drag Me to Hell” and other movies and TV) once admitted: “I had straight A’s throughout high school and I got a C in drama. I hated it because I was so quiet and shy. We had all these improvisation exercises I just couldn’t do.” [Variety, Mar. 3, 2003]

Tina Fey loves it

Video: Tina Fey Segment from Second City: First Family of Comedy.

In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey writes that working at The Second City was “the most fun job I ever had” and that improv was “everything I wanted it to be. It was like a cult. People ate, slept, and definitely drank improv.”

If you enjoyed her work on “SNL” and now “30 Rock” like I do, you’ll agree Tina Fey is still having a lot of fun – maybe her experiences with improv have enhanced her talents as a very witty writer and performer.


Improvising Creativity

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2019). Improvising Creativity. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2019
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