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Music Improvisation - A Peak Experience?

Updated: Aug 3, 2023



Many people think of a peak experience as requiring unique special circumstances. Descriptions of peak experience often involve being the receiver of sensory stimulation from without, e.g. 'the view', the 'climb', the 'race', etc. Without doubt these forms of peak experience are quite exceptional and naturally very memorable. It would suggest that to achieve peak experience is relatively uncommon and to encounter one would require quite a degree of effort. However peak experience is also available in a much more 'ordinary' sense once the inner door to it is found and opened. This peak experience commences from within, is more available, and emerges through the act of creativity. The act of creativity which concerns us here is music.


Music touches us differently from other forms of communication. When we use words to describe our feelings we are in effect, 'translating' the feelings. It is questionable as to whether many of us are sufficiently competent to do this satisfactorily. It involves the naming of the feelings. Through ignorance we might know that we are feeling 'something' but don't know its name. At other times we might not even be able to access our feelings let alone express them.


When we use music/sound we aren't translating in the same way. As a result it can be easier to externalise our feelings this way. Playing music of all styles can be highly stimulating and at certain moments can produce a feeling of peak experience. Music allows us to stimulate our feelings and in performance, externalise them. Whilst music is a kind of language, its vocabulary is very different from the spoken word. So, music in effect, goes directly to the source.


One possible explanation for music offering us peak experience is the relationship between interoception and intuition in that our bodies are constantly sending us signals about our environment and our emotional state. Singing or playing a musical instrument requires greater attention from us to these states. These signals are often subtle and difficult to consciously notice. However, people who are good at interoception are better at picking up on these signals making them more open to heightened awareness. To the extent that it is possible to develop a raised awareness of this kind, musicians are well-placed to develop interoceptive skills. ("The extraordinary ability of musicians to process multiple streams of auditory, visual, kinaesthetic and intero/extero/proprioceptive information within an affective environment has also led researchers to consider the psycho-socio-emotional function of music within our society." https://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/19105/1/PSY_thesis_RoseD_2016.pdf)


In the "Mastering Chaos: The Musicians Way" model we discuss how Classical, Romantic, Jazz and Music Improvisation all effect the human psyche. There are of course a vast array of other musical styles each having its own effect but all of them touch on these main four styles. In all of these styles of music, for the most part, a high degree of musical skill is required before a level of consciousness akin to peak experience can be achieved. This kind of peak experience is of the exceptional variety mentioned at the beginning because it requires quite a degree of effort. In the case of music improvisation for it to work well, it also requires a high level of musical skill. Undoubtedly trained and experienced musicians have a far great range of musical possibilities to offer certain forms of improvisation.


However there is a form of improvisation which does not necessarily require a high level of skill. In fact anyone can do it. The ability to make a sound is all that's required. This is important because at base we humans are innately musical. Our ability to employ sound is a feature of our success as a species on this planet. It has provided us with the ability to act together in groups to take us out of the jungle, to build cities and journey to the moon.


However even at our current state of technological advancement, our fundamental musical nature is still ever present. There remain musical ways, even at a primitive level, for humans to achieve heightened levels of awareness akin to peak performance.


As a former Head of Music in London in the 1970s and 80s, Andrew Hodges and his colleagues implemented the use of music improvisation as a core part of the music curriculum. This was a radical change from traditional music tuition in schools and resulted from the pioneering work of John Stevens and Christopher Small and others including Rod Paton who has done further work to formalise it into a methodology named the Lifemusic project.


Andrew, who was closely associated with Lifemusic project, has gone on to make a significant contribution to the development of improvisation theory. Groups of people with or without experience are able to come together to create music from scratch. There are no rules, no wrong notes, just the intention to create something together through sound. What appears to be chaotic is far from that. Ideas emerge to which people respond and as time progresses great masterpieces appear as if by magic.


Using this approach allows the externalisation of feelings in greater safety. Most importantly other people, our supporters, friends and even work colleagues have an innate comprehension of what is being externalised. They can honour it, respect it, and even respond to it. Equally, patterns of interaction become visible which can be more openly worked with and discussed.


Because the methodology is open to anyone with any level of musical skill, the process can be experienced by all-comers. This approach has the ability to enable peak experience even from complete beginners. From the first experience of improvisation and the effect it has on the psyche, it's possible to become aware of a feeling akin to peak experience. It feels profoundly revelatory as if something buried is being released. The improviser is accessing a deeper part of themselves. In doing so it is available to be aired and shared. In many ways it has a greater truth and honesty about it than the use of language. Because of its profound and potentially life-changing nature the experience of sound/music improvisation has the characteristics of a peak experience.


Here is how one improviser describes the experience:


"It’s a private conversation with my sub-conscious. I can play how I feel, even if I

don’t start by knowing how I feel. Then I can express or better understand how I am

doing, through new insights. The free improvisations are never the same - what is

consistent is that they reflect the mood I am in and will reveal insights into how I

really am feeling, whilst if when I started I wasn’t really sure as my head was too full

of the activities of the day to really notice how I was doing.


To prepare myself I shut my eyes and look into the back of my head as if looking

across a bay and into a dark cave. I then just see what happens next. It is like my

head is talking to my heart. I had been having a very emotional week and my playing

felt like a great guttural scream but without the associated sore throat! It was very

calming and re-balancing experience. It didn’t feel like a troubled mind but an

exercised mind…go and free."


The characteristics of a peak experience available within music making, include:


A sense of unity: People who have peak experiences often feel a sense of oneness with themselves, others, and the world. They may feel a sense of connection to something larger than themselves, such as nature or the universe.

A sense of awe and wonder: Peak experiences are often accompanied by feelings of awe and wonder. People may feel a sense of amazement at the beauty of the world or the power of their own being.

A sense of timelessness: Peak experiences often have a timeless quality. People may feel as if they are existing in the present moment, without any awareness of the past or the future.

A sense of heightened awareness: Peak experiences often lead to a heightened sense of awareness. People may feel more aware of their surroundings, their thoughts, and their emotions.

A sense of joy and fulfilment: Peak experiences are often accompanied by feelings of joy and fulfilment. People may feel a sense of peace, happiness, and satisfaction.


Peak experiences can occur in a variety of contexts, such as during religious experiences, creative moments, or acts of service. They can also be triggered by natural beauty, art, and of course music.


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