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A neuropsychophilosophical investigation of musical improvisation

Phillips, Keith (2018) A neuropsychophilosophical investigation of musical improvisation. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University in collaboration with The Royal Northern College of Music.


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Musical improvisation, spontaneous and creative play with musical materials, offers opportunities to understand aspects of creative cognition and of the human condition in navigating an unpredictable world. This research investigated the role of auditory imagery, the imagination of the sound of the music, in improvisation. Two complementary approaches were adopted. The first addressed improvisers’ experience with a focus on the role of auditory imagery and its relationship to their views on improvisation, mind and body, using qualitative interview and survey methods. Two studies were carried out with findings that suggest that anticipatory auditory imagery is regarded as an essential element which validates improvisation as a creative practice. The second approach investigated the embodied aspect of anticipatory imagery in an experimental setting. A new guitar-based altered auditory feedback paradigm was developed to find out about the effects of the familiarity of hand shape on judgements of sonic congruence. These new findings suggest that judgements of how a guitar chord will sound partly depend on the familiarity of the hand shape used to play them. The implications of these findings for the role of auditory imagery in improvisation were considered in the context of tensions between the ethnographic and scientific perspectives. This thesis concludes by advocating a rejection of Cartesian dualist conceptions of creativity in favour of an embodied ecological account which can reconcile the findings of cognitive science with improvisers’ experience and valuing of what they do.

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