Lennart Nilsson: Sound – Music – Improvisation

Feb.13, 2010

Sound – Music – Improvisation

Problems and philosophical underpinnings

The primary human goal is to survive and to ensure that life is as bearable as possible. Understanding the reality s/he must deal with is an obvious necessity for attaining this. An important part of that understanding is to observe patterns, contexts and regularities. From these, people can shape their action preparedness.

This observation is based on a philosophical conception that what we call ’reality’ or the ’world’ is not something the exists objectively for us to discover, but rather something we are parties to creating using our tools for understanding. This also presupposes the existence of an existing objective something whose various parts differ in their state, independent of human understanding of them. However, understanding and describing some part of this always calls for some form of conceptualisation.

In other words, the patterns or images that people find in the world are in part a human creation. Animal behaviour is dominated by inborn reactions to selected stimuli. Humans, on the other hand, are proactive agents, shapers of images and concepts. As such learning, experience and creativity exist in humans to a much greater extent than in animals. Shaping new patterns to handle a constantly changing reality is an essential part of human activity, using mental aspects that on the whole are subconscious.

Human beings change chaos to cosmos through this image creating. S/he creates a survivable world and can settle in by understanding and controlling it to a sufficient extent. For this the human senses play a central role. It is highly likely that all tools for understanding are created via certain fundamental sense experiences, through which a ’natural understanding’ is decided by the condition of the sensual organs and the outer world. In this there are spatial concepts such as over and under, hither and yon, as far as … and temporal concepts such as before and after, now and future, as long as …

The continued conceptualisation creates new understanding based on the existing one. This in turn can later provide a vision of what is possible to understand and control. It can also offer metaphors and pure, contentless structures whereby an image from one part of the reality provides order for another. It is namely so that human intelligence is such that one and the same image can be used to structure several, different areas.

Below we shall discuss what one of our senses, namely the ear, can possibly contribute during the shaping of the human world. We shall investigate the role of the structured world of music as a creator of tools of understanding and how these can be applied to other parts of reality. Finally we shall discuss what special function improvised music might have in this context.

Worlds of the eye and the ear

In humans with intact sense organs these collaborate in shaping his or her world. We hear a sound and see its source. As an opening thought experience, however, let us see what world might be if created by the ear alone. But we will begin by describing a purified visual world so as to be able to define the aural world more sharply through contrast.

The world of the eye is three-dimensional space. In it are objects. These are somewhat clearly delimited from each other in their surfaces. They own what is called a numerical identity: this is one object and this is another. Objects own a tangible continuity in time and are sorted in rather constant patterns. One object can hide another. We can easily shut ourselves away from this world by closing our eyes. Visual phenomena, such as colour and shape, are characteristics of objects.

The reality presented us by the eye is known mainly by solidity, stability, constancy, lack of ambiguity and clarity. It is a comparably reliable world in which we normally feel secure. We gain early experience with a number of events in the visual world, ones we have rather good control over because of the relative predictability that governs.

Quite the contrary, the aural world does not contain objects, but events and processes. These structures are temporal rather than spatial, at least in that we are not dealing with the same defined spatial positions as among the objects of the eye. Nor is there the same sharp delimitation between them since it is not obvious what is two different sounds or what is the same sound with an altered character. Another difference is that it is not always clear if a sound is simple or complex, that is if it comes from one or more sources. This means that the numerical identity is not as tangible as in the visual world. Sound has very varied temporal continuity, though usually of considerably shorter duration than for objects.

The contemporary human aural world is constantly changing – one and the same sound alters characteristics, new sounds appear, old ones disappear and different sounds are blended – everything mostly outside our control. Sometimes it happens very quickly. Even large changes such as from absolute silence to ear-shattering alarms can happen in an instant. Unlike objects, one sound cannot ’hide’ another. It can drown it out, but this is a function of how the human ear is constructed, not on the aural world per se.

The aural world cannot be shut out as easily and efficiently as the world of the eye. Covering your ears is far from as effective as closing your eyes. Sound reaches us from all directions simultaneously. We can hear, but not see what is behind us.

This aural world affects us more physically than what the world of the eye does. A sound can make the body vibrate, feel comfort or discomfort, feelings a visual impression is more seldom prone to do. If, for example, a picture makes us physically ill, this depends on the content of the picture, that is our interpretation of it. Sound waves can affect us physically regardless of if we understand what they might stand for. In other words, we do not ’listen’ only with our ears, but with our whole body. There are times when the body is actually more important for sensing sound.

The phenomena of the ear are not as the eye’s the colour and shape characteristics of the objects, but something that emanates from these objects.

For the most part, the aural world does not have the solidity, stability, constancy, lack of ambiguity and clarity that mark the visual world. It is an unreliable world, one where we can easily feel insecure. We lack the same control over it as we have over the visual world since it owns a much more undefined structure and is considerably less predictable. For this reason, this world can easily be frightening. Anyone wishing to scare a small child will use terrible sounds. It is indeed more natural and much simpler to create terror using sound than to put on a certain visual aspect. A sound can make us jump in a way a visual experience seldom does.

Humans have contact with the aural world while still in the womb. Simple structures like regularities in rhythm, sound and intensity create the first rudimentary patterns in the baby’s foetal world. The mother’s heart beat, the rhythm in her walk and the sound of her voice are important parts of the foetus’ experiential world and probably creates some of the first and most fundamental tools for understanding in a human’s life.

Still at least in our culture, it is the world of the eye that plays the largest role in our daily understanding of reality. This understanding is mostly assisted by spatial metaphors. Even in much of science, seeing is the most important. Its world corresponds to an ideal of lucidity which, among other places, is expressed the scientific ideals of positivism.


Music is sometimes defined as ’structured sound’, a not too successful definition since there exists structured sound no one would think of calling music. Still, as the musical concepts of our culture are constantly broadening, in much through electronic techniques, no one knows what music will include tomorrow. However, in this article we will make it easy for ourselves and say that music is a type of structured sound.

In other words, music demonstrates that structure is possible in the aural world. Even if a structured world is not automatically a controlled one, there is still a greater possibility of some type of control, such as through predictability or affect. Therefore it is possible to say that music also demonstrates that control is possible in the aural world and that we should be able to understand music as a type of controlled sound.

Our daily aural world is naturally not completely unstructured. Neither the rush of a waterfall nor the automobile traffic at a stoplight is completely chaotic. A growing slice of today’s everyday existence is invaded by music. Still, even if the total sound experience of normal days usually is a mix of highly differentiated sounds, most of them have nothing to do with each other and in addition are outside our control. Many sounds are unexpected. For that reason we choose a somewhat simplified label for this world, calling it the unstructured aural world.

The structures of music shaped by humans depart from the structures of the visual world in several ways. This is so because they preserve several characteristics of the normal unstructured aural world.

Music consists of events and processes in temporal rather than spatial orders. Compared to objects, these events and processes have a short life span and a fuzzy numerical identity – what are two separate tones and what are one and the same with a different character? However, the structures of music are man-made and the constant changes they undergo are controlled, though not always consciously. Many musicians, mainly those playing improvised music, say that they play best when they disconnect consciousness and intellect, experiencing that they are ’being played’.

Usually musical sources are not multi-directional and can be excluded in other ways than the unstructured aural world. However, music affects us physically to an extent that exceeds the effect of the everyday aural world since its frequently regular rhythms make us want to move. A musical sound cannot cancel or remove another, existing rather simultaneously and creating in this way the sonorities of music in units that are greater than their separate elements.

In other words, music demonstrates that the aural world can be structured and controlled. In music, humans can experience how something chaotic, uncontrolled and frightening can be transformed into something ordered and controlled. It becomes possible to endure it, but also in certain cases even to enjoy it. Given this, it is not far to suggesting a vision that this can also happen in other parts of reality with the same or similar characteristics as the aural world.

One possible world of this type is the human inner world. For the sake of argument, let us say that it comprises feelings, suppositions, values and desires, all always tied to each other. Suppose that I am angry at P (feeling). This anger is based on my conviction (supposition) that several of P’s actions are morally reprehensible (values). I want to express my anger by causing P some type of discomfort (desire). We simplicity’s sake we can call such a complex FSVD or feeling/supposition /values/desire.

The inner world of a human owns no correspondences to the objects of the physical world. Rather its contents are more like events and processes. These are not clearly delimited one from the other and it is not obvious what should be seen as a new FSVD or as one that has existed earlier, though changed. Conflicting or seemingly conflicting FSVDs can exist side by side, making it possible to have positive and negative feelings for the same person at the same time.

This inner world is constantly changing and the various complexes have highly varied continuity. New complexes are created, old ones disappear, various complexes blend, changes that usually occur beyond our control. A shift in feelings can be instantaneous. One example is that a person can figuratively explode in anger. Even positive feelings such as love can happen very quickly – that proverbial ’click’.

The theories of psychoanalysis state that an FSVD can be excluded by being forced from the conscious level, but that such exclusion is merely illusory. The excluded complex continues to affect the person, though now outside conscious control. The same theories state that a complex cannot ’hide’ another either. Trying, for example, to ’cover up’ my feelings about P’s bad deeds by thinking about his good ones only means that these negative feelings are pushed into the subconscious where they can work freely and uncontrolled.

It is seldom easy to point out which complexes are fundamental to a person’s personality and which are less important. And we have learned through personal experience that different inner conditions can cause us to experience physical discomfort or comfort.

Someone’s inner world can easily become chaotic and hence uncontrollable. This leads to anxiety or other mental suffering, such as inability to act or non-functional action. An uncontrolled inner world can frighten us by giving full freedom to feelings and desires we do not understand and do not include in our self-image.

In other words, it is necessary to structure and control this world to avoid discomfort caused by it. As we have seen, music can suggest a vision that it is possible to create order in a world with approximately the same fundamental characteristics. At times music can even serve as a direct, conscious instrument for this. It is no coincidence that music therapy has had its greatest successes by helping give order to chaotic emotional lives. It is probably also true that ’ordinary’ musical enjoyment and practical involvement works in the same way without our conscious awareness of it. We simply experience the music as something positive without thinking about what the basis for this experience is. It could be that this feeling of comfort is derived from the fact that some internal disorder and lack of control has been transformed into order and control.

The fact that music suggests a possible structure for the inner world does not mean that music is the only instrument for creating one. Various forms of psychotherapy have the same goal. In the best of cases, the order and control that these instruments working in concert provide can bring insight into the initial stages of an FSVD – is it completely fair of me to detest P and want to hurt him for what he’s done. If it becomes possible to confess to and accept the existence of (seemingly) conflicting feelings, it can be possible to sort them out – I appreciate characteristic X in P, but detest characteristic Y. It is also possible that the dynamic structures inherent in music can provide models for understanding emotional shifts and swings through demonstration and acceptance of such opposites as movement-rest, growing-receding, conflict-conflict resolution, tension-relaxation, agreement-difference, preparation-implementation, irritation-calmness, constancy-change and harmony-dissonance.

Just as music comprises many of the fundamental characteristics of an everyday unstructured aural world, so will an ordered, controlled inner world retain several of the characteristics found in a chaotic one. The complexes are not clearly separated, but are in a constant flux where new ones grow, old ones disappear or are pushed back. Since we cannot shield ourselves from them, they affect us physically.

By using relevant concepts, we can see and accept the structure and content of this world as we gain some sort of control over it. Control in this case does not only mean a conscious capacity for causing change, especially since that is seldom possible when it comes to one’s inner world. Rather what we are talking about is control in a weaker sense. Through basic knowledge of how this world functions, it becomes possible to predict certain sequences or at least to confirm their plausibility after the fact, thus making them easier to deal with. For example, it is easier to deal with a problematic love relationship if you know that love does not resemble what the soap operas suggest, namely a rather sharply defined condition you either are in or not. In other words, when it comes to understanding and dealing with an feeling like love and the relationships tied to it, a model such as the world of the eye is not particularly useful. It is necessary to be able to shake it off.

Some parts of reality are such that understanding and dealing with them using a model based on the world of the eye is highly appropriate. Other parts, however, own such characteristics that such models are unsuitable and confusing.

Creativity and progress in human thinking almost always include some emancipation from habitual ways of thinking, frequently those based on models from the world of the eye. An example is that spatial metaphors are common in our conceptualisations in various areas, including the inner world. However, people have often had the painful experience of seeing that it cannot be so, that further progress is not possible within that framework. In other words, the mental models derived from the common sense world of the eye, what philosophy calls naive realism, are simply insufficient. Further advances call for new concepts and new ways of understanding. In some of these situations a workable model could be derived from how music structures the aural world.

As we have seen, such a step is fully probable when it comes to the human inner world. Other areas surely exist. For example, it is not impossible that the human vision of social order originally came from music. And maybe still does. While it is probably true that the human social sphere or society never really was totally chaotic, this is also true of the aural world. Still there are many shared structural characteristics. The processes and how things happen in the social sphere are not sharply delimited. It is frequently difficult to discern what connects with what and in which way. Gatherings and groupings arise, disappear and mix. Most people find it difficult to point to where the most important groupings (centres of power, for example) are and there are constant shifts. The continuity in these different groups is highly variable. They can dissolve and shift character, sometimes instantaneously. In this way a friend or a friendly grouping can in one moment become an enemy or an hostile gathering, though much less often the reverse. An individual can demonstrate unexpected characteristics, at times better than we thought though more often worse. This kind of context is hard to get a grip on, unreliable and sometimes frightening. It is one where we always must be on our guard.

This description is not of some possible, more or less primitive social situation in the early stages of mankind. It clearly applies to today’s over-organised, western society where the gap between structure and control is evident. The structures exist, but they are often hard to identify and even harder to control. A thoroughly developed organisation in no way excludes feelings of chaos and powerlessness.


In other words, music offers a vision that suggests the possibility to structure and control those parts of reality with the same or similar characteristics as the aural world. We have seen examples of this in the human mental and social spheres. For the former, music can also function as a tool to create needed order, both through music therapy and through ’ordinary’ listening and playing. It is also possible for music to function as a tool for building society. (See Music is not a mirror, it’s a hammer, pg. 124).

Humans need existing patterns to use and complete concepts to apply in order to understand and deal with existence. While these provide safety and security, they also of necessity constitute a limitation or even a direct hinder. The surrounding world is constantly changing, requiring demolishing and replacing the old tools for understanding, those that have shaped many habitual patterns. We are always in need of preparedness for meeting the unexpected, times when there are no patterns to apply, be they habitual or new.

There is structure in all music. Creating new ones is not the province of any specific musical genre or type, nor of music as an art form. It can happen equally well within dance, painting or literature, as well as outside the arts. However, improvised music commands a special position in that the structures are created the moment the music is performed. This means that improvisation offers a more far-reaching vision than music as a whole. It points to the possibility inherent in immediate structural creation where no prepared tools are available. The individual human is quite capable of doing this him or her self in the very moment when the need arises.

Still, we must be aware that the improvisation concept is a broad one. It exists in many musical genres. Even with the same form, such as jazz, it can be more or less connected with a specific musical language and controlled by rules for what is or is not allowed, what is or is not good music. At one end of what is called jazz improvisation one finds a mechanical repetition of standard phrases. Here it is highly dubious if the name ’improvisation’ is even relevant.

At the other end of this spectrum are extremely serious attempts at liberation from different limitations and boundaries, but here it is equally dubious if the term ’jazz’ is applicable for here the focus is to distance oneself from such concepts as recognisability, tradition and security. In this way the concept improvisation becomes a problem, with the discussion focusing on such questions as how free an improvisation can be, what total freedom might include and if total freedom even is possible. This searching and these insights are then implemented in a musical expression.

This problematisation questions not only the prepared structure in music, but also the more conventional rules and frameworks of improvisation. In this there is creation of structure that simultaneously comprises the breaking down of hinders and a far-reaching liberation.

This vision taken from improvised music can at a minimum be applied to those areas outside of music we have looked at so far, meaning human mental and social spheres. However much order we may have achieved in these spheres with or without help from music, we still come up against the unexpected or that which does not lend itself to being handled using ready patterns. Improvisation illustrates that adequate structures can be created at the moment needed, thereby providing another type of action preparedness than that offered by habitual structures. But it goes even further.

When it comes to the mental sphere, we are not only offered a vision of how we can meet and master the unexpected, but also how we can break down the stagnated, sterile patterns that prevent us from growing and developing. We can create something new and vibrant in the exact moment when we need to do so.

Improvisation offers a vision of questioning and demolishing the old, petrified patterns and building up something new even in the human social sphere. In spite of the fact the individual improviser seldom or never thinks about this in the creative moment, there is an implicit opposition to the governing order in all improvisation worthy of the name. The vision suggests the possibility for creating a new social order, a society where people do not feel controlled and threatened by powers outside his or her control. Individuals are part of the creating and participate in the social construction. Free intercourse with music, including both listening and playing, can lead to freedom in thinking and acting.

This critical, questioning and visionary strength must exist in all societies that do not wish to stop developing. Obviously improvised music is only part of such a strength, necessary, though not sufficient. However, the necessity means that a society that allows its music to become petrified, dooms itself to stagnation.


Translation by Sven H.E. Borei