What I am actually saying is that we need to be willing to let our intuition guide us,

and then be willing to follow that guidance directly and fearlessly. 

Shakti Gawain (quoted in Cameron, 1995)


In his treatise on the artistic genius of Leonardo da Vinci, Gelb (2004) describes seven principles for thinking like an artist – curiosità, dimostrazione, sensazione, sfumato, arte/scienza, corporalita, and connessionione.  While each has its place in music as an art form, two of them – sfumato and arte/scienza – are most clearly revealed in improvisational music. Sfumato - literally, “going up in smoke” - is the term Gelb ascribes to the willingness one must have to embrace uncertainty or, as it translates to improvisation, to allow the music to take an uncertain course. In contrast, arte/scienza, speaks to the balance between art and science: in improvisational music, science provides the technical foundation that forms the springboard for artistry to unfold and develop. There is a tension between the complex primary conventions of music technique and the free form structure of improvised performance; one does not exist without the other. It is in this nexus that the ephemeral nature of performance creativity is revealed because, according to Sawyer (2006), no actual product remains.

The knowledge and skills that permit musical performance are acquired long before the creative process can materialise in improvised form.  In the critical moment of improvised performance, however, the performer seeks a state of ‘flow’ where one loses awareness of time and space – a peak experience where absorption in the musical process is experienced for its own sake (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).  When an improvisational musician is questioned about his or her understanding of the process, the response is most often, “it just comes out”, or “sometimes I hear it in my head” first, and sometimes “it’s like chasing after it” (Sawyer, 2003).  The poet, W. H. Auden, refers to such experiences as “the centre that I cannot find [which] is known to my unconscious mind” (quoted in Cameron, 1995).

Essentially, the art form of improvised musical performance begins from a deep knowledge of musical convention and technique, and is combined with a willingness to allow that knowledge to direct a course beyond the boundaries of traditional ‘form’. Structure and form thus become playthings, and consonance and dissonance become extended vehicles for emotional revelation. What remains is a transitory experience - evanescent, yet somehow enduring in its impact.



Cameron, J. (1995). The Artist’s Way. London, UK: Pan Macmillan.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. ew York: Harper Collins.

Gelb, M.  (2004). How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Delta Trade Paperbacks.

Sawyer, R. K. (2006). Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sawyer, R.K. (2003). Group Creativity: Music, Theater, Collaboration. Mahwah, New Jersey: Cambridge.


We are indebted to those people who have persisted in their quest to know how improvised music ‘happens’. Thank you for asking. We hope the above goes some way to answering the question.