From Small Signs to Great Form

Project leader:
Njål Ølnes

Project period:
2011 – 2016

Research centre:


Improvisation, Music theory, Ensemble playing

Fellowship project
Ph.D in Performance Practice

Analysis of the musical interplay in free improvisation, using the tools of Aural Sonology.

Free jazz is a musical style that began during the 1960s. It broke away from the rigid form traditions that prevailed in jazz at that time. Accordingly, free jazz has been characterized by short time spans and quick interactions between the musicians. Less concern has been given to longer time-spans and formbuilding features. Due to a the lack of tools for analyzing sounding music, academic discussions of free jazz have tended to concentrate on philosophical, political and psychological questions.

The present study aims to contribute to the study of improvised music through the use of a new analytical tool, namely Aural Sonology, which has been developed during the last 35 years at the Norwegian Academy of Music by Prof. Lasse Thoresen and colleagues.

In this study of the jazz group BMX, Ølnes has chosen to consider the musical interplay mainly as a sonorous phenomenon. Through spectromorphological analysis of the sound-materials used in this improvisation, he has found some of the ways in which the improvisers avail themselves of a play with soundcharacters, and how this play shapes interactions within the group and affects the overall form. And through the layer analysis, dynamic form analysis and form-building transformation analysis, he has shown how the form-building processes may take place in close connection with the use of sound characters and play values. Further, Ølnes has examined how «small hints and signs can develop into greater forms» and how the free improvisation takes place in the span between spontaneity and conscious strategy.

Ølnes has found that the musicians seek to complement each other in a creative, pre-emptive way that can be described in terms of roles defined in terms of interactive functions and relations. Interviews and conversations with the players of BMX, where he plays the saxophone part, complements and critically questions the findings of the aural sonology analyses.

In his analytical study Ølnes has found a number of issues that potentially could open a new field within musical research, one that enables a closer dialogue between music researchers and improvising musicians. Aural Sonology proves to be a tool to develop musical capacities both for the improvising musicians and the researchers, as it incorporates elements of the aural approach to learning that always have been essential to jazz music.

Ph.D. dissertation

The dissertation is available as interactive pdf and as an e-book.



Project leader


Njål Ølnes

Former employee (Ph. D. candidate 2011–2016)

Performance Practice

Last updated: 17. February 2016