Listen on Apple Podcasts Logo
Listen on Spotify link
Listen on Stitcher Link
Listen on Google Podcasts Link

Are free will and free improvisation truly free, or am I deluding myself? And is deluding myself a necessary condition for free will/improvisation?

Free improvisation is a primary theme of my podcast, Improvisations on the Ledge, so it’s probably about time to address the elephant in the room (my studio) where I’m recording these pianistic musings: are my improvisations really free and to what degree does the concept of free will play in this?

Maybe you were expecting some other elephant, like, for instance, the question of whether or not these are improvisations at all? (People have asked me that question.) Where’s the proof? My podcasts are not live; after all; it could be all edited together. I could, in other words, be making the whole thing up!

Well, yeah, I am making the whole thing up. That’s the point. Some day, possibly when I get a haircut, I’m going to do a live broadcast of this podcast on Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, and you’ll have your proof. Even then, though, there’s always the possibility that I prepared everything in advance, so in the end, you’ll have to trust me. Or not.

In the end, it doesn’t even matter, because I do prepare everything in advance. I’ve been practicing, studying, reading, composing, talking, thinking, succeeding, failing, rising, falling—but mostly living for decades. All of those things are my preparation for these moments of “free” improvisation. And their freedom, as I discuss in the podcast, is limited, ironically, by not only how much I’ve prepared, but the ways I’ve chosen to prepare.

If, for example, I practiced nothing but standard major (Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do) and minor scales and arpeggios along with the 18th-century repertoire they are connected to, my improvisations would sound something like warmed-over Mozart. I haven’t practiced any of that for decades; I practice my own scales and repertoire, so what you really hearing in these free improvisations is a kind of free association within the framework of all of those things I’ve been practicing for years. It’s still limited, but it’s my own.

But back to that original question: are free improvisations truly free, and is that freedom governed by free will? I address that question in some detail in this episode, but one thing I don’t address, at least directly, is the possibility that being willful itself may, at least in this context, be antithetical to freedom.

Sam Harris is Wrong, Or at Least Not Right

In the podcast, I briefly discuss philosopher Sam Harris’s book, Free Will,the premise of which is that we don’t have free will, that everything—every action and thought—is predetermined by an infinite regress of events going back to the Big Bang. We are, to Harris’ way of thinking, just cogs in the wheel of time, acting out our preprogrammed roles.

That idea, of course, is called Determinism, or Neo-Determinism, since the original Determinism was determined to be too fatalistic for free-thinking progressive moderns. I argue that Harris is wrong, that even with all of the accumulated baggage of our history, we can make our own decisions inthe moment. In the podcast, I make this argument solely through music: I take a simple musical idea, go one conventional direction with it, then prove that I can freely choose to go many other directions. This is, for me, the definition of free improvisation, and the musical equivalent of free will.

In the back of my mind as I was performing the various free improvisations for this episode, however, I was troubled by this notion of willfully choosing which direction to go. Isn’t the imposition of my will a kind of master-slave proposition where I’m assuming power over the music, forcing to go this way or that? If that’s the case, am I really free, and if so, what kind of freedom is it when you are imposing your will upon something or worse, someone else?

Free Non-Will

As it turns out, I end up addressing this issue near the end, if somewhat inadvertently or more appropriately given the subject, by chance. I mention pianist Keith Jarrett’s approach to free improvisation wherein he says that he just places his hands on the keyboard and they tell him where to go. Well, this is a very Zen approach, where we are freely exploring by letting the music take us where it will. It’s not so much free will as it is free non-will. And there is far more freedom in that than in pushing the music around where you, the master, want it to go. 

But it’s not Determinism either. Determinism is also a kind of master-slave proposition in which you are at the mercy of some unseen master. (Time? God?) Instead, it’s the middle ground in which, yes, there is all of this history behind you, but it doesn’t determine where you’re going next. Instead, you are freely exploring where the music is taking you. 

That’s free improvisation, and that is the point of what I’m doing here.

Episode #19 Transcription

Free Will: do you have it? Free improvisation: Can I really do it? The two are related, you know. We’ll talk about it first this,:


So here’s a free improvisation, but as you’re listening, ask yourself this question: is it really free? You ask the question because I’m going to be focused on playing it and then I’ll ask the question. So here it goes.


Several years ago I read this book by this philosopher, I guess he’s a philosopher, Sam Harris, called Free Will. A thin little book, maybe 80 pages, 90 pages. Read it on the recommendation of my daughter who was probably in her first year of college, although maybe the second, it’s kind of a sophomoric type of thing to read.Sam Harris. He’s pretty controversial, partly because I guess he’s perceived by some as a intellectual bully. I really don’t follow him, so I shouldn’t say that. What I should say is I found the book to be just ridiculous.

Basically Sam Harris argues against free will and for a kind of neo determinism that everything that we think is free, free choice that we’re making is in fact determined by so many processes. Going back essentially to the big bang maybe before, if you believe the universe is cyclical. And so the idea is that we really don’t have any free will because all these processes of this process of infinite regress going way back are really determining everything we’re doing. We think we’re making decisions, but in fact we’re just acting upon all these events. We’re just a cog in the wheel of these events and that includes our decisions now. So what does this have to do with free improvisation, which is after all the premise of this show, more or less, of course it has everything to do with it because freely improvising implies that you have no plan, that you’re making spur of the moment decisions that anything can happen.

In fact, not anything can happen. You are limited as a improvisor by your technical capabilities, which after all everybody has them. You can only ultimately play that which you have practiced in some variation. So that includes scales and chords, repertoire music you’ve played. It all contributes of course to what you’re going to play if you improvise freestyle ,the same way that freestyle rap for example, it may be spur of the moment, but of course it’s based on things that those rappers practice, verbal techniques. They don’t just go in having never learned the language. So this is a language, music. We accumulate a bunch of stuff and then when we freely improvise, what we’re really doing is freely choosing among the pallet of things we’ve played, practiced, listened to. So in that sense, perhaps Sam Harris is right that we aren’t making truly free decisions. We are somewhat slaves to what we have been brought up on.

Our culture has determined to some extent who we are. We have a limited amount of information. We’re not omniscient as people or musicians, so we are making choices for sure based on what is culturally prevalent, acceptable, what people over the years, musicians, record companies, fans, producers, whoever have determined to be what is acceptable as music. And a lot of these things do lead to a kind of determinism, even in free improvisation. However, in the moment I make the decisions, I decide whether I’m going to go left to right. So if I just randomly play something like this…


What I’ve done there is set up something to build on. There are two elements to it.


And then in the right hand, just a simple two notes, one the other, and back to the first, I’ve set up a premise for what may come and my musical knowledge tells me that I’m using what’s called the Lydian scale.B Lydian. That’s this.


Now I can continue to develop it, staying in that mode. At any time I can decide, well that’s enough of that and go on. So that first changed there to this e minor

Whatever it was that I did was a decision. I decided, well, I’ve had enough of this B Lydian, I’m going to E minor. It’s the four chord, the fourth degree of the scale. It’s a common place to go. And that is perhaps determined by my acculturation in western music, going to the four, going to that degree, that’s one, four, five, four, and five are the most common places I would go, but depending on my state of mind, which may have been determined from, you know, an infinite regress, going back to the big bang, I understand that. And all the trillions of events that have happened, including in my own life, what I ate last night and how well I slept. So on all these things could be determining what choice is at that moment. But I also have the ability to deny that first choice. And I do this all the time in free improvisation. Part of me will be saying, well, as I’m playing this thing in B Lydian that the common thing to do right here, the sensible thing to do is to go to e minor or something. But as soon as I have that thought, a counterargument is coursing through my neurons saying, well, you don’t have to go there. I mean, Peter, you have other choices. So…



well, let’s move on.


That was one choice. It wasn’t particularly good. It wasn’t executed very well. But let’s go for choice number three …


And so on. The point is that each small decision along the way where I decided to go at any given moment, once I make one decision, it opens up a whole new array of decisions to come. I’ve made a decision to go to this chord or use this technique, which again from my experience, many years of practicing, playing, composing, listening to other artists, that experience will determine, yes, some of those choices, but I am still picking from a pallet and as I make a decision to go this direction, as opposed to that, I’ve now opened up a different part of the universe of possibilities. And then as I go into those possibilities and make other choices, they lead to another infinite array of possibilities. So even though those possibilities are determined somewhat by who I am, my training, my culture in a broader sense, I am still freely choosing among them at any given moment.


And some of the choices are just random quantum fluctuations, if you will, and made a mistake or I lost my focus was thinking about something else, like what am I having for lunch? And that led me down another path altogether. So maybe some of the things I played were accidents, but then I made the choice to continue with those accidents, build upon the accidents, build upon the accidents. That’s free will, if you will.


And as a kind of epilogue, I recall an interview with the great pianist, Keith Jarrett, the interviewer, was asking him about how he went about this art of free improvisation. And Jarrett said that he just put his hands on the piano and they told him where to go. And I love this. I love the idea as a randomness to it. That in a way defeats the entire argument of freewill, free improvisation. Is it really free? It’s a way placing one’s hands on the keyboard and just going, it’s a way placing one’s hands on the piano, whereever they want to go without a plan of fighting off determinism of saying, not only do I not know what I’m going to play in advance, I don’t even know how I’m gonna start.Where my hands will go. And I think we’re always in this battle as improvisers against that demon called determinism, that demon that wants you to go a certain way, that demon in yourself planning and patterns that I keep speaking about in this podcast. One way out of that is just put your hand somewhere and go.


Okay, and as a kind of post epilogue or post post script or is it post script script? I never remember. I was thinking as I was playing that that people have a misconception about what free improvisation even means or at least I think people have a misconception about what free improvisation means. Maybe I have a misconception about people’s conception. In any case, what I think people think about when they hear the words free improvisation when it comes to music, less so comedy, is that it’s a certain sound like free jazz, just chaos, musical anarchy,. But that’s not what free improvisation is at all or it’s not what it has to be. Certainly for me, it’s not that at all. It’s a way of actually finding new forms, new structures, breaking out of your usual patterns, as I say. But it’s not to just play anything randomly and have no cohesive musical thought. Far from it. It’s to follow your train of thought, where it may take you. And inevitably, if you’re listening, if you’re as a musician, both playing and listening at the same time, and of course people don’t always do that, but if you are, you will form structures in the course of your improvisation. And as I said, the beauty of it is they may be unlike any other structures you’ve ever created. So there’s that. And that should be it for now.


I kind of hate to interject here, but wanted to tell you, I’m going to put these free improvisation tracks, including outtakes on my Bandcamp site in the, uh, in the, uh,


Improvisations on the ledge album, but that’s only available to subscribers, subscribers. So this is a subtle, not so subtle, blatant pitch for you to subscribe, to subscribe, to subscribe, to gain full access, to gain full access to these tracks.

So, so go to Peter It’s in the show notes. That’s where you’ll find it. And subscribe. subscribe, subscribe, subscribe. Subliminally I’m telling you to subscribe.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!