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Composition or improvisation? A new study says even musicians might not be able to differentiate


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In listening to and writing about a lot of instrumental music, one question that often surfaces involves the relationship of composition and improvisation: How carefully planned and coordinated is that feedback sprawl or that raga for acoustic guitar? Was there only an idea for a piece, or an actual score? Maybe it simply emerged from a group of linked-in musicians in the same room at the same time? These questions get even trickier when you realize that a lot of jams on records are but edits of improvisations, and that comprovisation–that is, improvising a piece and composing something by building around its aleatoric core–is more than a funny portmanteau.

A new study by German scientists Annerose Engel and Peter E. Keller from this month’s Frontiers in Psychology indicates that even highly skilled jazz musicians can’t always tell the difference. The study transcribed improvisations from six pianists, then had other musicians play those pieces. (Hear some of the pieces here.) A computer could consistently spot the rehearsed takes, but 22 jazz musicians could only do so about 55 percent of the time. That’s “only slightly better than chance,” says a story about the study in Science. Even practiced players (and they’re jazz musicians, so we assume they’re also good listeners) couldn’t tell the difference.

The Science piece indicates that the researchers are hoping to broaden the study into other disciplines “such as dance or speech” but notes some reluctance to do so, as both scientists are also musicians. That seems possible, actually, as enough genres–as mentioned above, from long-form instrumental guitar pieces to drone ensembles–sit on both sides of the improvisation and composition divide. It’s a question that seems open for exploration beyond jazz or 22 jazz pianists and one that, as a critic, replaces that recurring sense of worry with new intrigue.

(Hat tip to critic and science writer Rob Mitchum for pointing to the study via Twitter.)

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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