The Language of Music: How improvisation enables us to speak back

03 September

With spring in the air it seems an ideal time to reflect on the new directions my research is taking. Since I completed my PhD I have been involved in a range of research projects that have been directly impacted by the improvisation method I teased out in my thesis. This method, which emerged as part of a reimagining of classical guitar performance practice, placed improvisation at the centre of the music-making process. While my study was arduous, multilayered, fraught with challenges, doubt and uncertainty I developed a deep appreciation for the art of performative research and it’s potential to contribute change and deliver real outcomes for our society.

One of the more recent projects to benefit from my research is Convergence: the science art and spirit of compassion. This collaboration with psychologist Dr. Stan Steindl examines an approach to fostering compassion through the implementation of a meditation program that includes live improvised music. A paper examining one of our meditation sessions is currently being reviewed for publication in the journal Behaviour Change. In the sphere of education Sounds Across Oceans, an intercultural improvisation and composition program that explores the different ways improvisation can be learned and expressed in multi-instrumental settings, is currently being implemented as part of my residency at Kedron State High School. The pedagogical framework underpinning this program was first explored in Sounds Across Oceans Thailand, a workshop series I developed at Khon Kaen University in Thailand. A short documentary reflecting on the experience can be viewed here:

As these projects evolve I am developing a strong sense of the role improvisation can play in developing integrated pedagogies of health and wellbeing. In November this year I will be presenting a paper on this very subject at the annual ASPAH (Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare) conference in Brisbane.  For more information go to:

At the heart of my learning journey is a sense that music has an ever-increasing contribution to make across a range of fields. In an era where interdisciplinary practice and cross-curricular learning are so valued music and music research has a unique role to play in bringing diverse fields together. This is possible, in part, due to the universality of music as a language, it’s capacity to speak to us at multiple levels, in nuanced and abstract ways and it’s integrational power. When we see music as a language we begin to appreciate it’s potential to evolve and to help us evolve.

Dr. Suzuki went some way to unpacking this process when he developed his teaching method we know as the ‘Suzuki Method’. Suzuki exploited the principle of the ‘mother tongue’ in devising a unique learning strategy that required the child to build musical repertoire together with the parent by ear before learning to read music. By replicating the mother tongue principle in music Suzuki hoped to foster a more natural music learning experience that created intuitively gifted expressive musicians and whole human beings. There was one thing missing in Suzuki’s method however: improvisation. Central to his approach was the development and presentation of the same repertoire that other classical musicians were learning. In spoken language we learn to respond and interact spontaneously with others in a manner that becomes more individual and idiosyncratic, as we grow older. We don’t always say what we are told to say, we speak back. In order to speak back we need to know how to improvise, that is, to interpret an idea in the moment and generate spontaneous and appropriate responses. With our spoken language we are constantly learning, absorbing and experimenting with new ways of speaking and understanding by reading, watching, listening and verbally interacting with people in a diverse array of contexts across our lifespan. When we experiment with words, phrases and speech patterns we are essentially improvising without knowing it. The improvisation process is so ingrained in the learning and expression of spoken language that we don’t even recognise we’re doing it.

While performing and composing will always be central to my musical experience the way we learn to speak the language of music has broad implications for our society and deserves more attention. As this awareness grows I am beginning to understand how an open philosophy of music-making that moves beyond the learning and presentation of ‘set music’ to a relatively passive listening audience might work. Since ancient times and across cultures music has been shared and expressed in diverse ways for reasons that go beyond mere entertainment. Whether it is for ceremony, healing, dance, communication, giving rhythm to work or cultural diplomacy music has a rich and diverse history and that history is bound up in a plethora of music-making processes and purposes. The music-making process that most resembles spoken language and that best enables us to musically speak and interact with the wider world is improvisation.

My new research direction hopes build on the important work of Dr. Suzuki, Zoltan Kodaly as well as many other renowned teaching artists, researchers, music philosophers and musicians across time and culture to develop music-making approaches that are adaptable, renewable and creative. Music education should be musical; the methods, structures and processes we employ must be as creative as the music we hope to discover.

For an a great take on this subject see Victor Wooten’s TEDEX talk on music as a language: