An intriguing study from two German scientists indicates that even jazz musicians have a hard time spotting an improvisation from a composition. Can the study be taken further?

In listening to and writing about a lot of instrumental music, one question that often surfaces involves the relationship of composition and improvisation: How carefully planned and coordinated is that feedback sprawl or that raga for acoustic guitar? Was there only an idea for a piece, or an actual score? Maybe it simply emerged from a group of linked-in musicians in the same room at the same time? These questions get even trickier when you realize that a lot of jams on records are but edits of improvisations, and that comprovisation–that is, improvising a piece and composing something by building around its aleatoric core–is more than a funny portmanteau.

A new study by German scientists Annerose Engel and Peter E. Keller from this month’s Frontiers in Psychology indicates that even highly skilled jazz musicians can’t always tell the difference. The study transcribed improvisations from six pianists, then had other musicians play those pieces. (Hear some of the pieces here.) A computer could consistently spot the rehearsed takes, but 22 jazz musicians could only do so about 55 percent of the time. That’s “only slightly better than chance,” says a story about the study in Science. Even practiced players (and they’re jazz musicians, so we assume they’re also good listeners) couldn’t tell the difference.

The Science piece indicates that the researchers are hoping to broaden the study into other disciplines “such as dance or speech” but notes some reluctance to do so, as both scientists are also musicians. That seems possible, actually, as enough genres–as mentioned above, from long-form instrumental guitar pieces to drone ensembles–sit on both sides of the improvisation and composition divide. It’s a question that seems open for exploration beyond jazz or 22 jazz pianists and one that, as a critic, replaces that recurring sense of worry with new intrigue.


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