Photo by Andrea Z. Nusinov

Photo by Andrea Z. Nusinov

This is part two of a three part series.  Philosopher and phan Kenneth Noe (ABD, Southern Illinois University Carbondale) explores Phish’s improvisational music through the concepts of habit, affect, and event.  Don’t forget to read part one.

Repetition, Habit, and the Art of Improvisation

It is well known that musicians hone their improvisational skills through countless hours of practice and rehearsal. Rhythms, scales, and modes must be mastered in order to build a diversified reserve for improvisation. Strangely enough, then, the art of improvisation reveals that it is through repetition that the aesthetic novelty that defines successful improvisation comes to emerge. Even though it remains a commonplace among jazz musicians, Deadheads, and Phish fans alike, this idea is philosophically puzzling, since our ordinary sense of ‘repetition’ tends to denote a mechanical replication of an object, action, or idea. We say that something repeats when what comes after is the same as what comes before, where the instances that come after resemble the first instance. But in fact this is a very abstract way of thinking about repetition. Consider what happens when someone repeats the word ‘egg’ over and over. The word eventually loses its sense; it becomes just a strange sound. Similarly, on a hot summer’s day, a second glass of lemonade is not as rewarding as the very first, and a third glass even less so. More positively, however, repetitions can have the opposite effect. A connoisseur of wine refines her palate with each tasting. Here repetition serves as a vehicle for positive development rather than a negative diminishment. A drunkard’s palate, by contrast, is dulled with each intake. In each case, a capacity for affect is either increased or reduced.

With each repetition, then, something changes either positively or negatively, if only slightly. We can observe similar gradations of change in the practices which sharpen improvisational skills. With each repetition, something changes in the musician. Like the wine connoisseur, the musician’s goal is to refine his playing, to become a better, more nuanced player, whose appreciation for the richness and diversity of musical possibilities is increasingly refined. But the opposite can also happen. We might grow weary with repetition. Repetition can dull our capacities to be affected by particular songs, styles, and so forth. This can happen when we keep hearing the same song over and over again (“Prince Caspian” again?), or if a band mate continues to rehash the same uninspired riffs over and over. Anyone who has ever been in a band knows what it’s like to experience the tedium of band practice in the absence of fresh ideas. The lack of inspiration makes repetition a dull and lifeless affair, where the players simply go through the motions without experiencing anything new.

The philosophical point is that if repetition is such a crucial element in the development of improvisation skill, it must be something much more complex than a simple replication of the same. In light of the above examples, there seems to be a profound secret in events of repetition, one which must be discovered if we aim to understand how our aesthetic sensibilities and capacities for being affected might be increased and/or refined. So how is it that repetition serves as fuel for successful improvisation?

One way that we can think about repetition less abstractly is by thinking about it in relation to the idea of habit. When we speak of habits we are usually referring to repeated behaviors. Like our idea of repetition, there is a tendency to think of habits as unconsciously operating subjective behaviors carried out unreflectively and without the intervention of conscious thought. They can be “good” habits (daily exercise, balanced diet) or “bad” habits (biting my nails, incessantly checking my email). More generally speaking, it is through habits that we are carried along through our everyday lives, almost in a passive way. Everyday I wake up, brush my teeth, have a shower, make coffee, check the news, and then go to work, where another set of work habits then takes over. Individually and collectively, habits are all pervasive in our experience. This has led some philosophers to argue that habits are not simply psychological/behavioral dispositions but more deeply provide structures of meaning in our lives, which is to say that habits are not simply empirical features of particular human beings but rather integral to what it means to be human in the first place, a part of human nature. Wherever there are humans, the argument goes, so too are there complex matrices of habits that regulate flow of individual and cultural life.

Musicianship is similarly governed by habits. Individual musicians habituate chord structures, phrasing patterns, and genre styles so they can readily draw on them during live performance. In an improvisational setting, this is especially important. One not only needs to have memorized a particular song structure, but also to have habituated the courage to go “off book,” as it were, so that one can excavate relatively unknown musical territory with confidence during improvisation. Beyond the single individual, moreover, successful group improvisation requires not only the musical habituations of individual members but also their integration at the collective level. There must be a familiarity not only with one’s instrument but also a familiarity with the habits of the other musicians involved. This is why strong group improvisation is so difficult and rare, but also so joyous and beautiful when successful. The discovery of something novel and beautiful on one’s own is one thing, but to do so as a group is an experience of a much greater intensity of feeling.

When we look at how Phish goes about creating live shows, it becomes apparent that it is not only a combination of the individual members’ unique playing styles that shapes the singular performance but also the integration of musical ideas (forms, styles, in a more technical philosophical sense of ‘idea’). These ideas are drawn on in the live setting, whether it be jazz, blues, funk, bluegrass, and so forth, facilitating instantaneous communication between band members “in the moment.” A variation that hints in the direction of one of these ideas can be picked up by the other band members in order to take things in new directions as seamlessly as possible, often unconsciously and without active conscious intention. A complex structure of novel aesthetic production thus emerges: It is through a familiarity with these musical ideas, as well as a familiarity with the intricacies of one’s own instrument, and the playing habits of one’s band mates that combine to form countless possibilities for novel aesthetic creations on the fly.

Yet the art of improvisation is yet still more complex. In interviews, guitarist Trey Anastasio describes how the best jams seem to emerge organically on their own, as each member listens for signals within the jam, signals which may trigger unconscious bodily responses that initiate new directions which the improvisation might explore. These signals evoke variations in musical ideas, enabling other band members to pick up on them during jams. But as Anastasio describes, there is a profound minimizing of individual conscious intention in successful improvisation, a notion which ties in with the philosophical idea of habit as unconscious, though principled, action. In actuality, then, it is through a passive receptivity that potential aesthetic novelties and new affects are unlocked. With enough practice, one can trust one’s habits to take over, but if a part of one’s habits consists in an open comportment to novel affects, it becomes a matter of letting the improvisation happen rather than trying to consciously control its direction. In group improvisation, this experience becomes increasingly rich and dynamic. As Anastasio frequently reminds us, successful jamming is more about listening than it is about actively steering the music in a predetermined direction. “To listen” is itself a combination of active and passive mental states. When I listen to someone, I actively remain attentive to what’s being said, yet I also passively await what’s being given. When one is genuinely listening, one is open to what is new, that is, to what the other has to say.

Most live bands not only repeat the same setlist every night, perhaps altering one or two songs here and there, but they also stick to the same individual song structure night after night, where the piano plays the same solo at the same time, and where the guitar phrasing is intended to be played the same, measure for measure. To a great extent, this is true even of Phish. The classic “Run Like an Antelope” is not only compositionally identical every time it is played, but even the improvisational section near the end of the song has basically the same structure nearly every time it is played. If that’s true, then, what is it that makes certain versions stand out? The answer is found in the subtle variations of the song when it is repeated live. Trey will often insert bits of other songs on the fly (“teases”) or spin lyrics from other songs (“quotes”). Sometimes, as the improvisational section builds in intensity, a musical phrase set upon earlier in the jam will be reintroduced at a new level of the jam’s intensity, suddenly unifying the improvisation in a new way, giving it a new sense of purpose and direction. These improvised variations mark the uniqueness of the song’s repetition.

It becomes clear that there is something different about Phish’s activity of repetition. When Phish repeats a song, they do so in a different way than most bands. By building improvisational sections into their song structures, Phish discloses something philosophically interesting about the nature of repetition. To put it rather schematically, Phish explicitly engages the complex structure of repetition as a rich combination of sameness and difference. “Run Like an Antelope” must retain a similar structure every time it is played, or else we wouldn’t be able to call it “Run Like an Antelope.” If the song’s structure were to radically alter with every performance, it wouldn’t be the same song anymore. Yet there must be something different about the song every time it is played, not just because Phish and their fans value aesthetic novelty, but because, at a deeper philosophical level, in order for something to repeat in the first place the repetition itself must be at least minimally different from previous cases. In order to get a repetition “off the ground,” so to speak, there must be something that distinguishes it; otherwise it would just remain the previous instance and would not be a new repetition. Just as no two snowflakes or blades of grass are completely identical in every respect, no two repetitions can be utterly identical. Logically, there must be at least a minimal difference that distinguishes them. Contrary to what our everyday intuitions tell us a repetition consists of, then, there is in fact something sufficiently different about every repetition that makes it a repetition in the first place. Difference is just as essential to repetition as sameness is, producing a long-standing philosophical puzzle as to how exactly it is that they come into relation.

Continue to part 3.


  1. Pingback: SEARCHING FOR SPONTANEITY, PART 3 | Philosophy School of Phish·

  2. Pingback: Searching for Spontaneity, Part 1 | Philosophy School of Phish·

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