Grieg Research School in Interdisciplinary Music Studies

Raymond MacDonald

Improvisation as means for developing interdisciplinary knowledge

Main content

In recent years there has been a significant growth of intersest in improvisation, not just as a feature of jazz, but as an accessible, unique, spontaneous, social and creative process that can facilitate collaboration between many musical genres and across disciplines.  This presentation will highlight how improvisation can be utilized as a contemporary approach to creative engagement within educational, therapeutic and artistic contexts that can facilitate the development of musicality and creativity. This paper sets out a framework, based on psychological findings, for understanding improvisation as a universal capability and an essentially social behaviour, with implications for education, contemporary artistic practice, therapy and the psychology of social behaviour.

A number of research projects that investigate the fundamental features of improvisation will be outlined.  Musicians’ critiques of their own improvisations are discussed and key links with music education therapy are made.

A model is presented for the process of choice that individuals undertakes when improvising, with examples provided to illustrate how the model functions. The presentation also outlines a comprehensive set of options children, or any improviser, may take over the course of a musical collaboration to allow a group to generate music.   This way of conceptualising improvisation has utility across all forms of music and across different art forms.  It also offers a less daunting challenge to the novice improviser, and a potential way round a ‘block’ for creative practitioners. The implications are discussed in relation to broader social issues and cultural change.

Key Questions

  • What is improvisation?
  • Why is it important?
  • How can improvisation facilitate cross disciplinary collaboration?

Recommended Reading

  • Hargreaves D.J., MacDonald R.A.R, & Miell D (2017) The changing identity of musical identities in R.A.R. MacDonald, Miell, D. E and D.J, Hargreaves, EDs The Oxford Handbook of Musical Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • MacDonald R.A.R &. Wilson, G.B. (2015). Billy Connolly, Daniel Barenboim, Willie Wonka, Jazz Bastards and the universality of improvisation In G. Lewis & Ben Piekut (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies. New York: Oxford University Press

  • Pothoulaki, M., MacDonald, R.A.R and Flowers, P (2012) An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of an Improvisational Music Therapy Program for Cancer Patients. Journal of Music Therapy. 49(1) 45-67.


Raymond MacDonald is Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation at Edinburgh University. His ongoing research focuses on issues relating to improvisation, musical communication, music health and wellbeing, music education and musical identities. He studies the processes and outcomes of music participation and music listening and has a particular interest in collaborative creativity. His work is informed by a view of improvisation as a social, collaborative and uniquely creative process that provides opportunities to develop new ways of working musically. He published over 70 peer reviewed papers and has co-edited five texts, Musical Identities (2002) and Musical Communication (2005), Musical Imaginations (2012) and Music Health & Wellbeing (2012), The Handbook of Musical Identities (2017) He was editor of the journal Psychology of Music between 2006 and 2012 and was Head of The School of Music at Edinburgh University between 2013 and 2016. He is also a saxophonist and composer has released over 60 CDs and toured and broadcast worldwide.