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A Phenomenological Enquiry of Perceived Mental Representations in Thematic Musical Improvisation: Case Studies of Two Professional Pianists



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Ragni, Frances 


This study presents a phenomenological enquiry of two professional music improvisers’ perceived mental representations. The notion of perceived ‘mental representations’ are recognized as having a pedagogical importance in increasing the quality of a musical performance, yet its nature and roles in music learning remain poorly understood. Although they are generally seen as conscious and quasi-perceptual experiential phenomena involving the imagination of events, objects, and settings, music scholars have found ‘mental representations’ difficult to conceptualize due to the coexistence of its different names and definitions in the literature. Synonymous terms of ‘mental representations’ also feature in several phenomenological and psychological models of referent-based musical improvisation. These include the concepts of ‘tonal imagery’ (Pike, 1974), ‘representational structures’ (Clarke, 1988), and ‘analytical representations’ (Pressing, 1988). To address this gap, the present study seeks to conceptualize the nature, formation, and roles of mental representations in the context of the musical improvisation process. An overarching research question guided the study: What characterises the nature of improvisers’ embodied perceived mental representations before, during, and after a thematic musical improvisation? The study’s qualitative methodology is positioned in constructivism and draws on the theoretical thinking of Andreas C. Lehmann and Marc Leman. In particular, this study adopts Lehmann’s (1997) theory of three necessary types of mental representations in an expert musical performance (1. the desired performance goal, 2. the production aspects, and 3. the actual performance) as a theoretical lens to understand how the improvisers’ mental representations are used. In addition, Leman’s (2010) framework of embodied approach to musical semantics is used to access and understand how the improvisers’ mental representations are formed. The research design comprised two phenomenologically informed descriptive case studies of two professional improvisers. A central feature of this study’s design was having the improvisers learn a given musical stimulus in order to trace the formation and development of their perceived mental representations before, during, and after their improvisations. In addition, a group of four methods was employed: semi-structured interviews, live musical performance, graphic elicitation, and observation. Data comprising interview quotes, thick descriptions, the improvisers’ performances, and their drawings were first analysed separately, and then were brought together and interpreted using a framework informed by the theoretical works of Lehmann and Leman. The findings of the study are presented in a narrative across two descriptive case studies, showing how the mental representations from Lehmann’s model, and Leman’s six types of semantics are evidenced throughout the two improvisers’ learning, ideation, improvisation, and reflection phases. In particular, the key findings presented four ways of meaning constructions during the improvisers’ formation of their mental representations, and identified twelve types of goal, production, and reflection-based mental representations. Bringing the two cases together, the study concludes that the two professional improvisers’ mental representations: (1) are multi-various in nature, (2) undergo progressive and distributive formations, and (3) take on multiple types of roles. In addition to pedagogical recommendations to music education, the study’s methodological contribution lies in providing a reference point and common ground for locating and describing the different phenomena taking place during improvisation – ‘mental representations’ being just one of them.





Burnard, Pamela


Music Improvisation, Education, Music Learning


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Taiwan Ministry of Education