Glimpse into a Group Creative Process

In terms of social dynamics, I’m really impressed how a group of musicians, who are strangers to each other, can get together and make music immediately. I suppose this kind of thing is not exclusive to music though. In sports, there’s the pick-up basketball game that commonly takes place in public parks and gyms. The corporate world has ad hoc committees and the justice system throws together a “jury of your peers” for criminal trials. These zero-history groups are pretty interesting for exploring how people get along (or not) with each other.

Some musicians are so good that they can all show up for a gig and without knowing each other, and without any rehearsal, they can put on a quality performance that the audience loves. I think this is pretty common in the jazz world. Groups like this are able to perform on the spot because they all share a common knowledge base. If, say, four jazz musicians are hired and they’ve never played together, they would talk before and during the gig to figure out the songs that they all know. Plus they would rely on standard conventions of jazz performance along the way.

But what about a group of musicians who come together for the first time to create a completely new piece of music to be recorded? We’re not just talking about strangers functioning together and carrying out the things that each of them already knows how to do. Now we’re talking about group creativity. Here’s where it really gets interesting!

Below is a video of singer-songwriter-guitarist John Mayer taking part in such an experience. He joins up with guitarist-bassist and drummer to create a new song for an album. The 18-minute video covers a 12-hour period during which they go from nothing to a polished recording.

Here are a few things you’ll notice in their process:

  • These guys have great musicianship. They have much experience to draw from, and all of them know a lot of the same things. They know the same conventions of rock music, the same kind of chords and progressions, rhythmic expectations, etc. And of course they all have great ears. They are adept at playing by ear and improvising, which allows them to musically interact so well together.
  • As they work together, they are establishing social roles in the group process. John Mayer is clearly the leader. I assume he coordinated the project, and they all know that the song they come up with will go on his album. (He’s also the most famous…just how many movie stars has he dated?). Yet he is very accepting of the others’ ideas and input. Especially in a artistic venture like this, all members of a group must feel that their contributions are important and valued by the others. No question that’s the case here.
  • They effectively communicate with each other. And they do so in a variety of ways. Like any other group, they talk together. Sometimes they say they like each others’ ideas–like at 6:08 in the video where the bassist tells the drummer, “Dude, your groove is disgusting, man” (yes, that’s a compliment!). But they also find tactful ways of voting down certain ideas. These musicians also communicate nonverbally during performance. They use eye contact, facial expression, and physical gestures. Most interesting to me, though, is the way they communicate to each other through the music they play. For example, Mayer and the drummer may hear in the bass line where the bassist thinks the chord progression should go. Or the drummer may signal in a drum fill how he thinks the tempo or rhythmic activity should change.
  • Creativity requires reflection. All the musicians in the video see the value in experimenting musically and seeing what is spontaneously produced. But they also recognize the need to periodically step away from their instruments, and with fresh ears listen to what they’ve made. Psychologist Howard Gardner has suggested that exceptionally creative individuals are willing to risk failure (i.e., experiment freely), and spend much time reflecting on and refining their work.

It’s pretty impressive what a few great musical minds can come up with together!


6 responses to “Glimpse into a Group Creative Process

  1. This looks to be one of the best blogs ever!

  2. Getting up and playing when you don’t know what’s going to happen is very scary – my guitarist friend always insists on us doing it at open mic nights and I hate it but it has been known to work occasionally! What I find hard as an amateur instrumentalist is that I can’t immediately play the exact notes I hear in my head. For that reason I think it’s much easier for the less practiced of us to improvise with others vocally, as the mind-output link is more immediate (though granted you often need a strong leader). Otherwise your contending not just with group improvisation but also with your instrumental shortcomings. Bobby McFerrin gets members of his audience up on stage to do ‘vocal jams’ with him all the time and it goes really well. I wish this kind of interaction happened more in every day life as I think it’s a very healthy and very human form of communication – in fact saying that, I’m sure it does happen in other cultures. In a way I think the ability to improvise with others may be something we’ve lost touch with a bit rather than something we need to learn.

    • Joshua – I like your phrase “mind-output link.” That’s really what it is. I’ve cited the term “auromotor coordination” that another researcher used…it’s the extent to which you can do what’s physically necessary on your instrument to produce what your hear in your head. And what a great example in Bobby McFerrin! I’ve had the privilege of seeing him do what you mentioned. He’s an amazing musician and he uses it in the human/connection/communication way you describe. A real inspiration.

      • Ooh, I like that term… I just made mine up on the spot because I wasn’t sure it had a name! Do you know who the researcher was? I’d like to read more about it. I think it’s important to remember that there are two sides to musicality. On the one hand there is the musical ‘ear’ and the consequent capacity for generating musical imagery (sort of ‘internal musicality’), and on the other hand developing the physical skills to play what you imagine. It can be very frustrating when you lack the necessary auromotor coordination 😉 to perform as you wish to; although we are aware of our own internal musicality, there is no way we can share it without developing said coordination. To a listener, the internal musicality of a performer is inconsequential. Of course, that does not make it valueless – developing internal musicality can bring great pleasure, and it is a skill in itself, albeit an inexpressible one!

        It’s so obvious when watching Bobby M that has developed his auromotor coordination to a high level – every note is so heart felt, so real… for want of a better word! He absolutely oozes music! When I saw him I was actually lucky enough to get on stage with him for some improvisation myself. I’m no professional and what I did wasn’t that great but he totally made it work and his confidence and ability to make me feel comfortable was just incredible. For a moment I felt like a had the kind of mind-output link 😉 I always want to have, if anything I perhaps got a little over-confident about my own range! To be able to make someone feel like that when performing with you is such a gift, he makes connections with people instantly. It probably doesn’t come across as good as it felt but here, check it out:

  3. Joshua – Thanks for the YouTube link. I watched it, and loved it. The two of you sounded great! That kind of music making is so much fun.

    I saw the term “auromotor coordination” in a book chapter by ethnomusicologist John Baily. Here’s the full citation: Baily, J. (1985). Music structure and human movement. In P. Howell, I. Cross, & R. West (Eds.), Musical structure and cognition (pp. 237-258). London: Academic Press.

    Thanks again for your interest in this. I sure enjoy chatting about it.

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