Effects of Improvisation

Many scholars, artist and educators have strongly expressed the importance of musical improvisation. This significance ranges from individually grasping skills that benefit the performer musically to other skills that benefit the performer outside of a musical context. Improvisation may benefit cognition, social interactions and creativity. Through improvisation, performers can learn how to enhance cognitive skills like idea-generation and processing of information in a short amount of time. In addition, many scholars and educators have expressed how improvisational techniques can enhance teaching techniques and improve class room environments (Sawyer, 2004, Blaine Harger).

Our goal is to research the effects of improvisation on the performer, and the benefits of improvisation outside the realm of the performing arts. We will exploring the following areas:

  • Cognition
  • Social skills
  • Education
  • Organization/Decision Making


Improvisation can have a positive effect on a person's cognition. In the real world being able to adapt to new situations and go with the flow can be a valuable tool. In music, this may teach a person how to be a valuable member of an ensemble or musical group. In some cases it could allow a member of a musical group to know when to follow and when to take the lead during improvised musical situations. In addition, cognitive skills learned in musical improvisation can improve idea-generation, and the ability to process a variety of information into one cohesive thought in a short amount of time.


Idea-generation is a critical element of improvisation and an interesting cognitive process. Wendy Hargreaves discusses three methods of idea generation in her article “Generating Ideas in Jazz Improvisation”:

  • Strategy-generated ideas: ideas that are “consciously formulated and implemented with an intended design” (Hargreaves). Examples of this type of idea-generation include learning scales in various intervals (thirds, fourths, fifths, etc.), rhythmic displacement, and chromaticism. These types of ideas are formulaic and transferable. Often, audiation is not needed to execute strategy-generated ideas (Hargreaves).
  • Audiation-generated ideas: ideas that are “unconsciously formulated but presented to the conscious mind in a manner that the brain mentally 'hears' and processes without the sound being present” (Hargreaves). These ideas are often the product of years of listening to recordings and learning the “language” of jazz, which then resurface in fragments during an improvisation (Hargreaves).
  • Motor-generated ideas: “Motor-generated ideas are manifested in the body to produce musical output”(Hargreave). Essentially, the actions of playing a musical idea become so engrained that it becomes an unconscious act.

Schellenberg Study

Schellenberg constructed a study where he tested children before and after receiving 36 weeks of either private piano or voice lessons. He also had a control group that didn't take any music lessons or took some drama lessons. Schellenberg found that students who took music lessons's intellectual and cognitive abilities had actually improved over time. Schellenberg used the following reasons to account for this:

  • Music lessons are school-like
    • the intellectual benefits of attending school are exaggerated by the positive impact of additional schooling on IQ.
  • Skills learned in music lessons improve other non-musical skills
    • focused attention and concentration
    • memorization
    • fine-motor skills
    • expressing emotions
  • Intellectual abilities are enhanced by the abstract nature of music
    • by being able to identify melodies, skills such as recognition and memory can be improved
  • Learning musical language can improve skills seen similar in that of bilingual children
    • executive control
    • knowledge acquired through experience, such as vocabulary

Graph of Increase in Test Scores after Receiving Music Lessons


Within musical improvisation, social interactions are key. Performers must constantly communicate with each other in a thoughtful way in order to create the best improvisation possible. This is also true in non-musical tasks that occur on a daily basis. Conversations are a perfect example of this. One must think on their feet when conversing. In natural human interactions people rarely prepare wholly what they will do or say in such circumstances. Some preparation is normal depending on the social situation. For example, two or more friends conversing casually will not involve much preparation. In a more formal setting such as a job interview, preparation is necessary. By learning improvisational skills people are more apt to think on their feet socially. This may manifest itself through a person's humor, cleverness, or ability to hold meaningful conversations on the spot.

Another important social aspect of musical improvisation is achieving some sort of self-identity and self-importance through music. When a person begins to explore and discover their music, they begin the explore their own personal voice that inspires a sense of individuality and personal identity. In Randall Everett Allsup's article “Activating Self-Transformation through Improvisation in Instrumental Music Teaching” he writes, “A fundamental purpose of performing art forms, engaging with them, and trying to create them is to provoke some kind of personal transformation. This may become, at least for some, an existential act of liberation” (Allsup, 82). The more you improvise the more you realize how much your personal identity and musical voice are connected. By nurturing a our creative side through improvisation, one can achieve stronger senses of individuality and freedom. In times where people search for self-relevance and purpose improvisation can without a doubt become a vehicle to answer these sorts of questions.


There have been many educational forms attempting to occur that many of the tactics are similar to musical improvisation. Through studying improvised music, teaching can have an creative emphasis that strays away from scripted instruction have uses more “constructivist, inquiry-based, and dialogic teaching methods that emphasize classroom collaboration” (Sawyer, 2004).

In the world of education, there is much evidence suggesting the significance of teaching improvisation to children. Randall Everett Allsup writes, “One of our tasks as teachers is to enable children to gain the courage to be, to act on their freedom. We know that most young people, even without realizing it, are involved in a plurality of quests and that, on some level they are aching to learn. They will not feel compelled unless what is to be learned deeply interests them and propels them forward. We ought to be asking what activities propel our students forward? What activities move them to explore and investigate?” (Allsup, 81).

Dvora Yanow discusses the benefits of improvisation in teaching in her article “Learning in and from Improvising: Lessons from Theater for Organizational Learning” (2001): “We could learn from improv to shift our focus to our partners in this activity—our students—and stay actively focused on them…What a profound, if subtle, shift in casting occurs when my students become my partners in the learning enterprise.” When a teacher treats class time as a dialogue with the students, rather than an output of knowledge for students to absorb, the teacher is acting “in the moment” in the way that is common in improvisational art forms. Being in the moment is crucial because it places the focus on the group rather than the individual, which allows for better communication. A teacher that adapts his/her teaching and is “in the moment” will more effectively engage students in the learning process.

Organization/Decision Making

Yanow also discusses organizational learning, a collective approach to learning that could be beneficial in the workplace. She writes that “organizational learning is practice-based, focused on sustained interaction with the materials or processes of that practice over time. It is context-specific, situated ‘in the moment’” (Yanow, 2001). It is important to realize that improvisation is not just making things up, but rather using one’s knowledge of a given area in order to respond creatively and spontaneously to a given situation. This skill is applicable in many non-musical professions. Whether you are a lawyer, doctor, business manager, or law enforcer, being able to quickly and effectively respond to unplanned situations will allow for greater success.



Baily, J. (1999). Ethnomusicological perspective: Response to Sawyer's “improvised conversations”.Psychology of music, 27(208).

Hargreaves, W. (2012). Generating ideas in jazz improvisation: Where theory meets practice. International Journal of Music Education,30(354).

Kratus, J. (1991). Growing with improvisation. (Vol. 78, p. 35). Music Education Journal

Monk, A. (2012). The five improvisation 'brains': A pedagogical model for jazz improvisation at high school and the undergraduate level. International Journal of Music Education, 30(89), doi: 10.1177/0255761412439926

Noorgard, M. (2011). Descriptions of improvisational thinking by artist-level jazz musicians. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(2), 109-127.

Patrice Madura, W. (2007). Confidence in teaching improvisation according to the k-12 achievement standards: Surveys of vocal jazz workshop participants and undergraduates. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 172, 25-40.

Randall, E. A. (1997). Activating self-transformation through improvisation in instrumental music teaching. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 5(2), 80-85.

Schellenberg, E. Glenn. (2005). Music and Cognitive Abilities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 14, No. 6, 317-320

Yanow, Dvora. (2001). Learning in and from Improvising: Lessons from Theater for Organizational Learning. Society for Organizational Learning, Vol. 2, No. 4.