Musical Interaction & Improvisation

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Nordoff robbins music therapy and improvisation

Research team: Neta Spiro & Michael Schober

Organisations involved: Nordoff Robbins; The New School for Social Research, New York

Start date: October 2012

Project outline: Since improvisation is at the heart of Nordoff Robbins music therapy, this study investigates the following questions: 1. What characterises music therapy improvisation in the eyes of co-improvising music therapists? 2. What are the techniques used? 3. To what extent co-improvisers agree about 'what happened'?

This project builds on a series of studies about shared understanding in collaborative music making. 

How much do listeners share understanding of the jazz performances they hear?

Research team: Michael Schober & Neta Spiro

Organisations involved: The New School for Social Research, New York; in association with Nordoff Robbins

Start date: September 2013

Project outline: How can we talk about a specialist activity such as music therapy to different audiences? The question of the extent of shared understanding between those participating in an activity and those observing is not limited to music therapy. This study explores audience interpretation of duo musical performance and the extent to which variability in hearing across different audience members can be predicted by prior musical experience. In particular, using an online questionnaire the study asks:

  • To what extent do non-performing listeners understand a performance in the same way as the two performers who originally played?
  • To what extent do audience members with different musical backgrounds hear the performance in the same way as each other? i.e. how much variability in hearing is there across an audience?
  • When the performers have different interpretations of what happened in the performance, do audience hearings correspond more with one performer’s interpretation than another’s, or are hearings individually variable across all audience members? Are audience members with musical training more likely to agree with performers’ interpretations than audience members without musical training? Are audience members who have played the same instrument as a performer more likely to endorse that performer’s interpretations?
  • Are audience members more likely to agree with claims about the performance that both players endorse than claims that only one performer endorses?
  • Are audience members any more or less likely to endorse interpretations by an outside expert (analogous to a critic) than interpretations by the performers?

This is one of a series of studies about shared understanding in collaborative music making. We hope that the methods developed and findings identified in these projects will help inform our exploration of the variability of shared understanding in music and music therapy.

To what extent do performers and listeners share understanding of free jazz performances?

Research team: Amandine Pras, Michael Schober & Neta Spiro

Organisations involved: The New School for Social Research, New York; in association with Nordoff Robbins

Start date: November 2014

Project outline: Music therapists communicate with a range of audiences about their work. The questions they face regarding the extent of shared understanding between those participating in an activity and those observing are not limited to music therapy. Through interviews and questionnaires, this case study investigates free jazz musicians’ creative processes and the extent and nature of shared understanding when they improvised together for the first time. It also observes the extent to which other free jazz musicians within the same community agree with the performers’ characterizations when listening to their recorded performance.

This is one of a series of studies about shared understanding in collaborative music making. We hope that the methods developed and findings identified in these projects will help inform our exploration of the variability of shared understanding in music and music therapy.

How much do jazz players share understanding of their performance? A case study

Research team: Michael Schober & Neta Spiro

Organisations involved: The New School for Social Research, New York; in association with Nordoff Robbins

Start date: August 2012

Date first published: 2014

Reference 1: Schober, M., & Spiro, N. (2014). Jazz improvisers' shared understanding: A case study. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.

Abstract: To what extent and in what arenas do collaborating musicians need to understand what they are doing in the same way? Two experienced jazz musicians who had never previously played together played three improvisations on a jazz standard (“It Could Happen to You”) on either side of a visual barrier. They were then immediately interviewed separately about the performances, their musical intentions, and their judgments of their partner's musical intentions, both from memory and prompted with the audio recordings of the performances. Statements from both (audio recorded) interviews as well as statements from an expert listener were extracted and anonymized. Two months later, the performers listened to the recordings and rated the extent to which they endorsed each statement. Performers endorsed statements they themselves had generated more often than statements by their performing partner and the expert listener; their overall level of agreement with each other was greater than chance but moderate to low, with disagreements about the quality of one of the performances and about who was responsible for it. The quality of the performances combined with the disparities in agreement suggest that, at least in this case study, fully shared understanding of what happened is not essential for successful improvisation. The fact that the performers endorsed an expert listener's statements more than their partner's argues against a simple notion that performers' interpretations are always privileged relative to an outsider's.

Reference 2: Schober, M., & Spiro, N. (2013). How much do jazz players share understanding of their performance? A case study. In the proceedings of the International Symposium on Performance Science (pp. 257-262), Vienna, Austria, 28-31 August 2013.

Abstract: To what extent do collaborating musicians need to understand what they are doing in the same way? Two experienced jazz musicians who had never previously played together improvised a jazz standard three times on either side of a visual barrier, and were then interviewed separately about the performances and their musical intentions. Two months later, the performers listened to the recordings and rated the extent to which they endorsed each statement. Performers endorsed statements they themselves had generated more often than statements by their performing partner or an outside expert. The high quality of the performances combined with the disparities in agreement suggest that, at least in this case study, fully shared understanding of what happened is not essential for successful improvisation.

Nordoff Robbins music therapy interaction analysis

Research team: Mercédès Pavlicevic, Neta Spiro & Camilla Farrant

Organisations involved: Nordoff Robbins

Start date: February 2013

Project outline: This study uses two approaches to develop a taxonomy for describing music therapy interactions, in order to link broader observations with detailed music therapist interpretation:

(1) Analysis of music therapy video recordings by focusing on the relationship between therapist and client (where they look, whether they move around the room). These features have been identified from contemporary interaction research, and from discussion with music therapists.

(2) Interviews with music therapists and identification of correlations between their video descriptions and features annotated.

Date first published: 2014

Reference 1: Spiro, N., & Himberg, T. (2014). Improvisation and change in videos of 1-to-1 music therapy sessions with children with autism spectrum disorders: A case example. In M. Kyoung Song (Ed.), Proceedings, ICMPC-APSCOM 2014 Joint Conference: 13th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (pp. 344-348). Seoul: Yonsei University.

Abstract: The individual and shared pulse characteristics of participants in interactive and co-improvisational music therapy approaches are often described as one of the reasons that music therapy has been found to be effective for clients with autism spectrum disorders. Music therapy works towards change but the documentation and analysis of change varies depending on the music therapy approach and the purpose of the analysis. In this case example, we analyse videos of one early and one later Nordoff Robbins music therapy session using an annotation protocol in order to investigate pulse characteristics of both players and to examine whether change can be identified in the individual player’s pulse profile and in the amount of shared pulse. We find that instances of shared pulse primarily occurred within a regular pulse, and more regular and shared pulse behaviors were noted in the later session. Pulse characteristics may be taken as an indicator of client-therapist interaction and form part of a web of characteristics that our investigations of improvisation, interaction and change in music therapy sessions explore.

Negotiating chaos: A view on entrainment

Research team: Neta Spiro & Tommi Himberg

Organisations involved: Nordoff Robbins, Brain Research Unit, Aalto University; in association with Nordoff Robbins

Start date: February 2013

Date first published: 2013

Reference 1: Spiro, N., Schofield, M., & Himberg, T. (2013). Empathy in musical interaction. In the proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Music and Emotion, Jyväskylä, Finland, 11-15 June 2013.

Abstract: Entrainment has been linked to positive affect and pro-sociality, e.g. empathy. Empathy and entrainment are facets of the “shared manifold”, mirroring and mental simulation system allowing us to automatically share emotions and intentions, and to understand others. They are foregrounded in music, which is very efficacious in communicating emotions and intentions. We perceive the intentional, expressive motor acts behind the sounds of music. Music therapists take advantage of this and use musical interaction to work with their clients. The cognitive foundations of synchronisation have been studied extensively, but its emotional aspects only rarely and the methods of entrainment research have only rarely been used in music therapy research, which has mainly focussed on qualitative case studies. Our aims are to study the associations between empathy, en-trainment and musical communication. In dyadic tapping tasks, participants started in different tempi and later on started to hear each other’s tapping. We also carried out an exploratory case study analysing the timing characteristics of a client and therapist in videos of music therapy improvisation sessions. In both cases we analysed whether and how the players entrained and the contributing factors. The link between entrainment and empathy is not linear; we discuss e.g. the effects of pair constitution and task difficulty and the character-istics of bouts of entrained and non-entrained behaviours in the music therapy session.

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