Automatic Playing

On Automatic Playing

The premise of this endeavor, that is the idea that serves as the bedrock for all that it explores, is the notion that we know things we cannot tell. This knowledge has been described by many thinkers, including Freud and the dynamic psychologists, as well as the phenomenologists, Eastern thinkers, and many poets, artists, and musicians. I will explore this inner knowledge which alludes direct expression mostly through music.


Tapping into this inner knowledge, what Jung referred to as intuition, is a matter of looking inward, rather than outward. I think Michael Polanyi expressed this well in his term indwelling, which he describes in his book, The Tacit Knowledge. From the psychodynamic tradition we would understand this as unconscious knowledge. The psychodynamic tradition and the Eastern Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions offer useful tools in tapping into this unconscious knowledge, whereas the phenomenologists, artist, and musicians provide us with tools for expressing that knowledge. There exists here two aspects of this knowledge: how to listen for it and how to express it.

When we consider music-making as a way of both accessing and expressing this inner knowledge, we often encounter the technique of spontaneous improvisation. Improvisation is a word that can have different meanings within different contexts. For example, free improvisation can be an aspect of avant-garde jazz, as improvisation is typically associated with traditions of jazz music. Improvisation al exists with the idiom of what we often call “classical” music. It is also an essential aspect of non-Western music making such as the Hindu Raga. Improvisation is a method that can be expressed through many different genres, styles, or idioms of music.

We can contact and articulate our inner world through improvisation. How that inner world is expressed will be dependent on the influences of our personal history. How we “speak” is necessarily dependent on the environment we have been exposed to and developed in. It is also influenced by what we consciously choose to be influenced by, as well as conscious, volitional limitations or rules that we choose to impose on ourselves. Improvisation can happen on a continuum from the unstructured to the structured. For example,  in unstructured improvisation we may just make sounds. The variables that govern how, what, when, why, and where we make those sounds is free of preconceived notions or rules. Structured improvisation might mean improvising a classical minuet, in which the traditional form and style of a minuet serves as our guidelines. Some classically oriented musicians also improvise fugues, or improvise over pre-composed music such as Gregorian chant, such as the work of saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

In the jazz idioms we also have many different styles and approaches to improvisation. Be-bop improvisation has its own unique vocabulary, chords, scales, and customs which inform the stylistic methods of the improvisation. Post-Bop and cool jazz has a different set of expressive guidelines that accompany those styles. The thing to keep in mind is that improvisation is a method that can be used in many different forms of music and in many different ways.

I think this clarification is an important starting point for our discussion of music-making, indwelling, and the unconscious. In the nineteenth century the exploration of automatic writing became a fascination of artists and psychologists. Early explorations in America include William James, who, as a professor of Gertrude Stein, encouraged her explorations of the technique. In France Pierre Janet and other explored the phenomenon that would eventually inform Freud’s work on free-association and the talking cure. Psychodynamic thought and art developed a relationship from the start and many psychodynamic thinkers exploited the methods of artists to explore the theoretical concept of the unconscious. Likewise, many artists turned to psychodynamic theories to understand their art-making.

I once spoke with a composer who had very devout Christian beliefs. She described to me her compositional practice in which she sat quietly in a room and waited to hear a melody, which came into her right ear, which she then wrote down. She believed that she was taking dictation from God in her musical composition. This is an interesting and important point in discussing free-writing, improvisation, and the unconscious. Pre-psychological explorations of all of these aspects were explored through spirituality and art. There is rich information to be explored in these writings that can be useful to everyone, regardless of their personal belief systems. I think it important to understand that we do not need to adopt a belief to learn from it. My personal approach is based in psychodynamic and secular Buddhist thought. However, I found useful insights in exploring the ideas of improvisation and the unconscious in other approaches. This book will explore secular ideas of the unconscious and improvisation, not theistic approaches. I am use the word spiritual in a very secular way. For me, spirit is  breath, animating force, psyche. When I use the term it should not imply theism. This is a secular approach.

When I first began exploring improvisation at the piano I was largely informed by Kenny Werner’s book Effortless Mastery and Steven Nachmanovitch’s book Free Play. Werner uses Taoism as a starting point for jazz improvisation. Nachmanovitch explores improvisation in life and music, independent of a style such as classical or jazz. Both, however begin with an important exercise: automatic playing at the instrument. This exercise serves as the fundamental technique for improvisation. There are many descriptions on how to do this, the earliest I can find is in Mildred Portney Chase’s Just Being at the Piano. All of these books have been very influential in my thinking and exploring improvisation and the unconscious. Here is how I approach the exercise:

I have found that I do this exercise in the morning, when I first sit down at the piano. I also find that the experience is very different with different instruments. While sitting at the piano I close my eyes and meditate. My hands are resting on the piano keys, but I do not focus on position or keys. I direct my attention to my mediation. Sometimes I use a chakra meditation, other times a concentrative meditation. I will explain more about these methods, but for now, I will describe a basic concentrative meditation.

I sitting comfortably, with my hands resting on the piano keyboard I observe my breathing. My attention becomes focused on the air entering my nostrils and existing my lips. I do not force or breathe in any way, I just observe my breath. I continue this until I feel ready to “speak,” at which point my fingers begin, independent on conscious direction. This continues until I have nothing more to “say,” at which point  my hands stop making sounds and I listen to the decay of the final pitch produced. When I am ready, I open my eyes.

This is one variation of many that I practice in the mornings. This exercise is not easy. It challenges many of the presumptions we have about playing our instrument and about how and why it happens. This meditation exercise brings us into direct contact with our inner world and forces an indwelling in that world. This indwelling is not one which we effortfully travel through, but rather one we enter and observe. More than exploring we are observing.

In the early years of exploring free-writing, the spiritualists, developed a device called a planchette. It is a heart-shaped device that holds a pencil, and allows the person’s hand to freely direct the writing onto the paper. A more basic approach would be to simply hold a pencil and allow the writing to begin. Both of these methods share something important with the piano experiment. The question of whether or not we are aware or unaware of what we are writing or playing. Some people begin with a heightened awareness of what is coming out of their fingers and then slip into a less conscious experience of the process. Others remain aware of what is being sounded form the beginning to the end of the exercise. I do not know that there is a correct way of experiencing this. It seems to me that the importance is that, after the exercise is completed, one spends time thinking about their experience. I have found that my awareness or unawareness has changed over the years of doing this exercise. It also can change from day to day.

The first issue I encountered with this exercise still fascinates me. The instructions I first learned was to simply “allow the fingers to begin moving”. This instruction assumes that finger, hand, and arm muscles can move reflexively; without intention. I sit, hands resting on the keys, and something does happen, but it is not the sounding of notes. I have a heightened awareness of the weight of the hands on the keyboard. I feel a great gravity in my arms, and I fall into a deep concentrative state of the skin, muscles, and bones of my fingers, hands, and arms. My state of concentrative meditation becomes so rooted that I am often startled into consciousness by the furnace, a bird, or the cat playing. But the experience of the fingers or the hands moving without my volitional will, has never occurred.

I studied clinical hypnosis and it me wonder if there is a connection between this experience of the hands moving without volition and suggestibility. In hypnosis we determine a person’s hypnotizability by administering a suggestibility test. It turns out that about one-quarter of the population is hypnotizable. I am not hypnotizable. I do not pass the suggestibility test. From my experience with suggestibility, I will venture the guess that those who are hypnotizable might be able to experience a disconnect to their volitional movement and experience their arms, hands, and fingers moving on the keyboard as an automatic act. I continue to practice just letting my hands rest on the keys, in the hope that they will one day start playing. I also experiment with resting the fingertips on the keys with depressing the keys. Still, silence prevails; there is no automatic playing. The idea of automatic writing or playing fascinates and excites me. But, until now, the only sounds that have occurred non-volitionally have been through the mere weight of my hands activating the keys.

In the early explorations of automatic writing, there was a distinction made between people who were conscious of what they were writing and people who only became conscious of the content of their writing upon reading it. This reminds my of the split-brain phenomenon in which the severing of the corpus callosum results in the person being able to write or draw without comprehension of what is being written or drawn. The opposite of this would be certain psychedelic drugs that heighten the communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain in the corpus callosum, which results in a different kind of experience. These examples from brain science are not intended to suggest a reductionistic, mechanistic, or materialistic underpinning of the experience, but merely to suggest that there are similar experiences described in brain science.

It is remarkable to consider that the young Gertrude Stein, while an undergraduate at Radcliffe, studied with both William James and Hugo Münsterberg. James and Münsterberg both influenced her curiosity about automatic writing. During this time she researched and published an article on automatic writing. This article is richly approached from the point of view of an artist using empirical methods to explore the phenomenon of motor automatism. Stein was captivated by the process of automatic writing and it would become, as B.F. Skinner described it in an article for The Atlantic, her “secret” writing method. Stein’s work impresses anyone with a certain freedom from convention and a willingness to explore and enjoy aspects of writing and language that were not typical at the time. I think we can see a similarity in the music pieces of Philip Glass. There is a a repetition of the musical text that brings about a transformation in how one hears music. Eric Satie seems to be after something similar in his work Vexations.

In her paper Stein describes some observations about automatic writing that are useful to our exploration of automatic playing in free improvisation. Stein, like William James in his notes on automatic writing, asks if the state of automatic writing is a dissociative state in which the act of writing becomes detached from the habit of conscious awareness, or if it is evidence of an unconscious “second personality” which we are unaware of. Stein also describes an experience similar to my own regarding the initial movement of the hand. She seems to feel that the initial movement is volitional and then continues automatically. She also describes how, through repetition, one can break the habitual association between conscious awareness of our initial volitional act and fall into an automatic state more immediately. This all is a result of dissociating established conscious habits and creating a new habitual way of splitting the awareness.

What does this mean for our experience of automatic playing at our instrument? It seems relevant to me that we not concern ourselves with the idea that the hand can play without conscious control, but rather that we unlearn the habitual censorship that our consciousness imposes upon our playing. In this way, we understand that we initiate our hands to play the keys and then form the habit of freeing ourselves from conscious control of what we play. What results is a spontaneous motion that manifests unanticipated music influenced by the repeated patters which our years of playing and practice has ingrained in us. Intervals, scales, arpeggios, chords, and tone clusters all combine with tempi, rhythm, articulation, and volume variables that have been stored in our unconscious and our neuro-muscular memories. The result is a unique, spontaneous response to immediate stimulus from our indwelling.

Stein found a tendency towards repetition in her automatic writing experiments. We can also find this in our automatic playing with patterns in both the left and right hands as well as combined. As music seems to become meaningful, or at least memorable with repetition and sequential patterns, this tendency towards repetition ofter result in compelling automatic playing. We can allow the patterns to form spontaneously and consciously choose to remain with the pattern, to modulate the pattern chromatically or diatonically or to move on to something new. Stein describes flashes of consciousness which we can consider as moments of conscious interplay with our unconscious playing. Stein’s description of flashes of consciousness reminds me of the experience of of entering into lucid dreaming. Like sun glimmering on the bellies of a school of fish, the sparkling light appears in a flash and then is gone. When we latch onto the flash, catch it like a wave, it then takes us into a lucid awareness in the dream state. 

This idea of lucid dreaming seems to be the inverse of automatic playing. In automatic playing we dissociate are habitual conscious control to allow playing without conscious direction. Lucid dreaming is becoming consciously aware of our volitional will while in the unconscious dream state. The flashes of consciousness appear when we develop the habit of lucidity while dreaming. The similar flashes of consciousness appear when we are in a deep state of automatic playing. In the dream we try to latch onto these flashes and swim with them. In automatic playing we forget or ignore them to stay within the unconscious state. 

The idea of unconscious is different from the unconscious. Whereas unconscious refers to not conscious of, the unconscious is a storehouse of unknown knowns. In my experience with automatic playing, there is a gradual breaking of the habit of self-conscious awareness and willful control of playing. When we begin the practice of lucid dreaming, it takes time to cease established habits of consciousness and allow new habits of consciousness to form. This is also true in meditation practice. In automatic playing we are breaking established habits of willful choice, censorship, and controlled playing, and allowing for a new habit of spontaneous playing without conscious control. Control requires judgement and discrimination. We can practice various degrees on a continuum of discriminatory playing; from perfect reading of a manuscript to complete unconscious playing. The point is to explore and free oneself of the customary judgements and censorships that we have been taught. This reestablishing of habit requires a breaking of the initial habit. I think this is the experience of dissociation that Stein and James spoke of in their studies on automatic writing.

To dissociate from our hands and arms, we must forget about critical discrimination of what is being produced. This characteristic of the method of automatism seems to be what B.F. Skinner was not sensitive to in his essay on Gertrude Stein. As a child Skinner dreamed of becoming a fiction writer. However he lack a certain quality that is required of the artist. Ironically it is that quality which he criticizes in Stein’s writing which made Stein an artist and made Skinner much more palatable to the positivistic audience. Skinner could not find justification for Stein’s publication of “meaningless” texts. For Stein, no justification was needed.

The etymology of the word justification lends a certain insight here: To make just, or correct, to make right. This betrays something that seems to be at the heart of our endeavor in automatic playing. We are striving to break-free of our Skinnerian habits and cultivate our Steinian habits. It is a historical endeavor, perhaps even a dialectical one. We are reacting against The Enlightenment insistence on logic and the rational in favor of the illogical and the irrational. The act  is one in which we come to question something that has not occurred to us to be questioned: the hierarchy of action. In the act of automatic playing we embrace the Romantic antihesis against The Enlightenment thesis. This is not to say that the notions of the Skinnerian worldview is not useful; it has its place and usefulness. The error we seek to address is the assumption that the Skinnerian positivism is the only way, or the only way worth pursuing.

In his essay on creative writing and daydreaming, Sigmund Freud describes how the adult creative writer reenters and taps onto the childhood state of play and daydreaming while writing. There is a state one enters when   activities such as writing, playing, and painting. This has been described in many ways and points to some way-of-being that is free from the political authority of society and history. The only authority becomes one’s own choices. Through the practice of automatic playing we attempt to decrease the social judgements and increase our connection with our own judgements, or free ourselves from all judgement. If I choose to automatic play chromatically, that is a parameter that I set, not one set by a judging audience or a social convention. If I choose to automatic play in a diatonic key, that is my personal choice and not one of social expectations. In this way, it seems that automatic playing and free improvisation serves as a method of distancing oneself from social expectations.

John Steinbeck discussed the suffocating effect that imagining a general audience can have when writing fiction. He recommends writing to a specific someone. This gives us something to explore in our improvisational playing. We can play for a specific person and find how our imagined audience affects what we have to say musically. We can also forget the audience and not play for anyone. Or, we can play for ourselves. These are all very different states and require a degree of conscious awareness, at least in the beginning or our improvisation setting. These might be more along the lines of free improvisation, whereas automatic playing attempts for dissociate from the awareness of playing.

I have experimented with recording my automatic playing and free improvisational settings. It is common when in a studio setting to become aware of the mic, the fact that we are being recorded. I think this can be similar to Steinbeck’s general audience which imposes its judgement on us. These judgements are the internalized judgements of others, from before we can remember, that become a part of who we are and how we see the world. Freud called this aspect of the psyche the Über Ich (Superego). This is distinguished from the biological desire engine Das Es (The Id). Both of these describe desires –biological desires and socialized desires, that often shape our experience of the world. It is through conscientious awareness of these social and biological desires that we become aware or conscious of ourselves. This act of automatic playing is a dissociation from the social expectations which we have been steeped since birth. The practice does not suggest that the conventions which we seek to free ourselves from are not useful or even desirable to work within. It is, rather, a practice of exploring alternatives to this default attitude and coming to know that we have more options and freedoms than we might have been aware of. It is also the case that we can find methods that are more suitable for certain aspects of life that are the presumed social institutions and attitudes into which we were born.

Ludwig Börne reminds us “with the birth of every new mind comes the birth of beautiful new thoughts. With every individual, the world is reborn. And yet, somehow, the unnecessary and distracting scrawl of life and teaching conceals and obscures these original texts.” This seems to illustrate the very thing we are exploring in our automatic free improvisations. We are attempting to act in greater awareness of our captivation-in-an-acceptedness by bracketing-out out learned social values and exploring what remains. Through this dissociation from social convention, we are able to see more clearly that music-making has possibilities that exceed our assumptions.

C.G. Jung tells us, “Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.” This is precisely what the act of automatic playing cultivates in us; a shifting from the external world of judgement and censorship to the internal world of authentic being. This authentic being is not persona (mask) or personality (state of masking), it is a freedom from the persona. Jung’s was a a sort of continuing of Freud’s psychoanalytic conversation. With Jung we see the beginnings of psychodynamic psychology as opposed to Freudian psychoanalytic psychology. The word psychodynamic refers to Freud and all who have explored and challenged the Freudian framework. Psychoanalytic refers specifically to Freudian psychoanalyis.