Monthly Archives: September 2017

Music Improvisation and Research Interviews

A question that arose during the recent progression viva was, ‘why use musical improvisation within phenomenological qualitative interviews?’

In my project I am combining semi-structured verbal interviews with improvisations, talking and also playing music with my participants. The examiner questioned why I should want to play spontaneous music with the interviewees, what was the point exactly?


I pondered a bit, this was a good question, and something which I had not articulated before. What was the point of improvising with my participants? It seemed like such a natural and obvious thing to do, I had hardly questioned it before. I considered Langer’s (1942) philosophy, who described music as ‘modes of feeling’, as ‘presentational’ symbols of communication touching beyond the verbal, getting in-between spaces in our heads and hearts and making emotions audible.  Then I thought about explaining, when you improvise, it is like you come to acknowledge another intimately, you feel you know something about the inside of them, without the need for external information and etiquette (all the usual social questions such as; what work do you do or how old are you?). In my typical ‘mixed  media’ approach, I then fell onto Merleau Ponty’s philosophy of art (1964), in which he said that art is, ‘the inside of the outside and the outside of the inside’. A painting has the potential to literally expose and reveal a painter.

Kandinsky improvis 28

Kandinsky Improvisation 28 – What does this painting reveal?

So if music and art have the possibility to reveal ‘inside’, then my question is; why not improvise with research participants? There are more forms of communication than recorded and typed words, this is something we know strongly and personally as artists and musicians. It seems so important to use artistic skills in research to try to get to the core of the moment of connection and what is being expressed in the research encounter.


Langer, S.K. (1942) Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art. (3rd ed). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964) Eye and Mind: The Primacy of Perception. USA: North Weston University Press.




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