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Karin Johansson

Professor of Artistic Research in Music

As a researcher at the department of Music Education and Performance, I am associated with the research team that applies socio-cultural perspectives on musical learning and creativity.

In my thesis (Johansson, 2008), I study organ improvisation on a professional level from an overarching perspective of cultural historical activity theory, CHAT (Engeström, 1987), and use activity systems as models for analysing the complexity of individual and collective motives, internalisation and externalisation.

Methodologically, organ improvisation is theorized as a discursive practice, where processes of musical creativity and learning are accessed through the study of discourses in music and discourses on music (Folkestad, 1996).

The thesis shows how patterns in music-making and learning are shaped by collective and historical practices and discourses, and, simultaneously, how individual musicians may influence and expand the scope for artistic initiative on a collective level.

The results are discussed in terms of possibilities for future development, both in improvisation as a cultural and musical phenomenon and in instrumental teaching in higher education.

My present work aims at further exploration and development of activity theory as theoretical and methodological foundations for studies in this area. During the work with my thesis I experienced how well the theory of expansive learning (Engeström, 1987, 2005) covers the complexity of aspects of creative and artistic work and may function as a tool for accessing musical learning and creative processes.

Cycles of expansive learning are similar to creative and artistic processes, which are often difficult to describe in terms of direct problem-solving. The thesis also yielded interesting gender-related results concerning choices and preferences in music-making.

My former studies include a discourse analysis and deconstruction of text-books in organ improvisation (Johansson, 2007). In line with this, and my studies on improvisation as a discursive practice, I am particularly interested in theoretical integration between discourse analysis and socio-cultural perspectives and in the development of methods for analysing discourse in activity systems (Daniels, 2001).

This includes the extended text-concept and its applications in the area of music, where verbal communication does not always suffice for accessing the learning and creative processes at work in music-making.

When studying, for example, the so-called tacit dimensions of musical interpretation, improvisation and composition, inspiration from practice-based research are of interest (Sullivan, 2005), as well as collaborative methods (Hultberg, 2005) and experiences from Developmental Work Research (Engeström, Lompscher & Rückriem, 2005).

Hitherto, Scandinavian research in music education has mainly used observations of musical learning and/or interviews by learners (Olsson, 2008), while the younger discipline of artistic research has concentrated on documentations of and reflections upon the researcher/artist’s own experiences of the process of creating art (Frisk, 2008; Östersjö, 2008).

Activity theory offers a stable and flexible framework for combining inside- and outside perspectives in studies of musical activity that may vary from one-to-one instrumental teaching to choir singing (Welch, 2007).

Furthermore, it offers channels for feed-back between researchers and practitioners, and opens up for fruitful connections to other research areas such as nursing, work-place learning and organizational studies, which traditionally have been the objects of study for activity theory.

I am currently involved in three projects, which all theoretically relate to CHAT and form starting points for theoretical and methodological exploration:

· Choir in Focus, in co-operation between Malmö Academy of Music and the Department of Musicology, Lund. A qualitative study of high-ranking choral conductors’ definitions of musical quality and artistic value.

· Improvisation and Church Organ, forms part of a project funded by the Swedish Research Council. The study explores (i) relationships between liturgical traditions, musical expression and socio-historical structures in Catholic and Protestant contexts, and (ii) relationships between gender and musical creativity, such as gender-specific aesthetics and ways of knowledge.

· Voices on Musical Learning, an interview study of ten one-to-one instrumental teachers’ teaching methods and philosophy in words and music. The study aims at capturing and translating tacit dimensions of practice-based knowledge and experience through collaborative methods.

Against the above background, my present research aims are:

· in depth exploration of the theoretical and methodological merits of activity theory in connection with studies of musical creativity and learning in education and performance,

· further development of the qualitative interview as a format for accessing discourses on and in music ,

· investigations of relationships between an extended text-concept and conceptions of scientific quality, validity and reliability,

· evaluations of varying modes of analysing and presenting scientific findings that go beyond verbal text in accordance with a CHAT perspective.

Daniels, H. (2001). Vygotsky and pedagogy. New York and London: Routledge Falmer.

Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit Oy.

Engeström, Y. (2005). Developmental work research: Expanding activity theory in practice. Berlin: Lehmanns Media.

Engeström, Y., Lompscher, J. & Rückriem, G. (2005) Putting activity theory to work. Contributions from developmental work research. Berlin: Lehmanns Media.

Frisk, H. (2008). Improvisation, computers and interaction. Rethinking human-computer interaction through music. Malmö: Malmö Academy of Music.

Folkestad, G. (1996). Computer based creative music making. Young people´s music in the digital age. Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis.

Hultberg, C. (2005). Musikers tolkningsprocesser. Metodutveckling för samarbete mellan musiker och forskare [Musicians’ interpretation-finding]. In T. Lind & J. Wadensjö (Eds.), Konst, kunskap, insikt; texter om forskning och utvecklingsarbete på det konstnärliga området [Art, knowledge, insight; texts on research and developmental work in the artistic area]. Stockholm: The Swedish Research Council.

Johansson, K. (2007). Improvisera mera? Kritisk diskursanalys och dekonstruktion av texter om orgelimprovisation. [Improvise more? Critical discourse analysis and deconstruction of texts on organ improvisation]. Nordisk Pedagogik, Vol. 2, 172-185.

Johansson, K. (2008). Organ improvisation - activity, action and rhetorical practice. Malmö: Malmö Academy of Music.

Olsson, B. (2008). What kind of theories dominate research on music education? In press.

Sullivan, G. (2005). Art practice as research. Inquiry in the visual arts. London: Sage.

Welch, G. (2007). Addressing the multifaceted nature of music education: An activity theory research perspective. Research Studies in Music Education, Vol. 28, 23-37.

Östersjö, S. (2008). Shut up ‘n’ play! Negotiating the musical work. Malmö: Malmö Academy of Music.


Retrieved from Lund University's publications database

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Karin Johansson
E-mail: karin [dot] johansson [at] mhm [dot] lu [dot] se