We study cognition behind improvisation in both artist-level and developing improvisors. For example, we asked advanced improvisers to either sing or imagine memorized or improvised music while in an MRI scanner. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) we were able to identify brain areas and connectivity patterns associated with improvisation (Dhakal, Norgaard, Adhikari, Sun, & Dhamala, 2019). We found improvisation was associated with a state of weak connectivity necessary for attenuated executive control network recruitment associated with a feeling of “flow” allowing unhindered musical creation (Vergara et al., 2021).
We also use qualitative methods to investigate how improvisors describe their own thinking (Norgaard, 2011 & 2017). Recently, analysis from interviews with improvisers from different cultures including Carnatic Indian, American fiddling, Brazilian, Arab, Greek, Western Classical, and jazz revealed identifiable modes of creation, thinking, and motivation. We also uncovered cross-cultural strategies for improvisation that may aid educators in broadening their curricular to include other musical traditions (Norgaard, Dunaway, & Black, in press).
Network science is the study of connectivity within networks where researchers map and analyze relationships between network attributes and outcomes. Our research positions music improvisation as a complex system where the underlying cognitive mechanisms used in improvisation associate with melodic patterns frequently used by improvisors. We liken the use and development of improvisational language to that of spoken langue as complex systems differing by modality. Our research has demonstrated human sensitivity to melodic distance within a network (Marshal et al., 2023), or how related two different melodic passages seem. We also uncovered results suggesting expert jazz improvisors have developed a personal vocabulary of musical patterns linked to associated motor movements (Norgaard, Bales, & Hansen, 2023).
The lab is collaborating with Occupational Therapy to design at-home piano therapy for stroke patients (Chen & Norgaard, 2023). We have received positive feedback on self-motivation from the recent piloting of a new therapeutic piano app we’re developing in collaboration with Gil Weinberg’s lab at Georgia Institute of Technology . We hope to enter into a second phase of testing soon and are preparing several related grant applications.
The lab is collaborating with Fayette County who is piloting a new Community for Creativity program. We are currently analyzing data from divergent thinking tests to see if participation in the program affects students’ creative ability.
Lab members are engaged with research involving other faculty in Music Education including a current study investigating the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the student teaching experience. Another collaboration involves community outreach, an area in which GSU music education has been at the forefront through our Center for Educational Partnerships in Music.