Faculty Spotlight: Martin Norgaard

A Day in Life of an Interdisciplinary Music Researcher

I study musical improvisation, an example of a creative behavior that unfolds in real time guided by constraints. In tonal music, those constraints typically include the tune, related chord progression, style, and rhythmic feel. More broadly, it could be argued that humans improvise all the time. For example, when we speak, we make up wording in real time that is constrained by topic, context, and grammar. Similar to an improvised solo in a musical performance, a speaker guided by visual slides must improvise wording that fits the slides. In both cases revision is not possible. What is played or said is received by the audience for better or for worse. I study musical improvisation in order to better understand this type of creativity in general. Different methods of research which makes for very interesting work days. Here, I describe interactions on one such day, July 27, 2015.

The first significant event of the day was a lunch meeting with Georgia Tech researcher Gil Weinberg. He works with musical robots that can improvise. During the meeting, we discussed collaborating on a performance at the STEAM3 conference at GSU on September 11 and 12, 2015. Not only did we plan to perform together with his robot Shimon, but Gil also provided materials for my installation in the Interactive Playground at the event devoted to musical improvisation. Finally, we discussed a possible future collaboration in which my research on the cognitive processes of improvisation could be used to program his improvising robots. Specifically, I am working with Mariana Montiel in the GSU department of Mathematics and Statistics creating software that improvises in a particular style by using a given collection of existing improvisations.

After lunch, I met with Kiran Dhakal, a graduate student studying Physics in the lab of Mukesh Dhamala. Kiran needed advice on a research poster showing initial results from a brain imaging study investigating the neural correlates of musical improvisation. Earlier this summer, Kiran and other students in the lab finished scanning 26 advanced jazz musicians as they sang or imagined both pre-learned and improvised jazz melodies. By comparing brain activations in the two conditions, we hoped to identify brain areas responsible for selecting notes during improvisation.

Finally in late afternoon, I met with Ute Römer from the GSU Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL. We discussed the design of a research poster detailing a novel method for analyzing music using corpus linguistic tools. This is based on previous work where I analyzed patterns in improvisations by jazz great Charlie Parker using a specially designed algorithm. The new work demonstrates how anyone can use the freely available corpus linguistic software, AntConc, to find patterns in music.

Both research posters were later presented at the Meeting of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition in Nashville where I also gave a presentation on an EEG study together with Bhim Adhikari, a post-doctoral student in Dr. Dhamala’s lab.

I feel very fortunate that Georgia State University encourages and supports interdisciplinary research. I constantly engage with faculty in other disciplines in many ways from attending the Brain & Behavior events hosted by the Neuroscience Institute, to presenting for students in psychology, and discussing improvisation in bird song with a biologist. Meeting experts in other fields is challenging and rewarding. Too often we get stuck in our own world and lose the bigger picture. Even more importantly, interdisciplinary collaborations make for very interesting work days!