One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish: flocks, schools and musical improvisation

“A flock exhibits many contrasts. It is made up of discrete birds yet overall motion seems fluid; it is simple in concept yet is so visually complex, it seems randomly arrayed and yet is magnificently synchronized. Perhaps most puzzling is the strong impression of intentional, centralized control. Yet all evidence indicates that flock motion must be merely the aggregate result of the actions of individual animals, each acting solely on the basis of its own local perception of the world.” – Craig W. Reynolds (1)

An alternative model to the “collective mind” of an improvisational group may be found in flocking (birds and land animals) and schooling (fish) behavior. In a 2006 essay, physicist Daniel Sinkovits defined flocking as “the phenomenon that individuals all move with approximately the same velocity, so that they remain together as a group. Animals that exhibit flocking range in size from buffalo to bacteria.” (2) In a 1982 essay in Scientific American, B. L. Partridge (American Scientist, 1978) cites research (3) demonstrating that although flocking behavior appears synchronized, when three or more fish swim as a group, each fish makes autonomous (and changeable) decisions about its spatial position within the group. Members of the flock remain in close proximity yet do not crash into one another. No individual leads or follows, yet each is able to exert influence upon the behavior of the whole. The group can effectively and collectively change direction and maintain a uniform rate of motion, even when accelerating.

For fish, relative position within the group is guided primarily by vision, as each individual seeks to maintain an unimpeded view of the bottom of the body of water. (a line of hair cells located on the fish body provides an alternative means of tracking, functioning akin to the human inner ear, which detects in Sinkovits’s words, “the flow of fluid around the fish.”)

Certainly, human actions differ greatly from bird, fish, and other animal behavior. As Reynolds (1987) notes: “The basic urge to join a flock seems to be the result of evolutionary pressure from several factors: protection from predators, statistically improving survival of the (shared) gene pool from attacks from predators, profiting from a larger effective search pattern in the quest for food, and advantages for social and mating activities.” (4) Musical improvisation is certainly not governed by these same motivations (with the possible exception of survival within the music economy!) Human improvisers are also not constrained by issues of proximity — unlike physical space, musical space is endlessly flexible, allowing for all sorts of juxtapositions, from synchronization to simultaneities that seem to lack obvious relationships. All sorts of pitch and time-related relationships are possible, although some musicians may perceive unconventional pitch, time, or sonic relationships as collisions that would be disastrous for birds in flight.

Animal flocks can show astonishing flexibility; for instance, the collective is able to  expand in size without limit. Scheffer [1983, quoted by Reynolds, 1987] points out: “when herring migrate toward their spawning grounds, they run in schools extending as long as 17 miles and containing millions of fish.” (5) Additional fish can join the group, growing the school without changing its nature. Yet animal flocks seem impervious to many of the collective dynamics that affect members of human groups [according to Partridge, birds are primarily aware of just those flying closest in proximity].

Unlike animal flocks or schools, the very nature of a human group changes as the collective grows in size: a musical trio or quartet functions very differently from a group of ten, never mind an orchestra of one hundred. We understand ourselves and behave differently when we are with a small group of friends than when we are in a meeting with thirty people, or in an auditorium with 250. The ways that human beings  interrelate varies in part depending upon the setting, something that differentiates us from fish or bird flocking and schooling behaviors

Our human quality to be affected by, if not dependent upon, the behavior of fellow group members lies at the heart of collective musical improvisation. Our sonic awareness of fellow musicians—instead of our ability to grow in numbers–is expansive. It is limited not by physical proximity but by our auditory ability to hear surrounding sounds, be they individual, collective, or hazily ambiguous in their source. When collectively improvising, we can respond to any material or our choosing, in any combination. In a group of five, our attention can shift in an instant from one individual or subgroup to another.

Still, there are moments in collective improvisation, when musicians can suddenly play, unplanned, synchronously. For a moment, it is as if we reach back, early in our evolutionary history, to flock behavior, as if we are birds or fish. I have begun to explore musical examples that demonstrate moments of flocking behavior, a topic I will return to at another point in my writing.


(1) Craig W. Reynolds, “Flocks, Herds, and Schools: A Distributed Behavioral Model,” Computer Graphics 21(4), July 1987.

(2) Daniel Sinkovits, “Flocking Behavior,” (2006, University of Illinois Urbana Champagne),

(3) B. L. Partridge, “The Structure and Function of Fish Schools,” Scientific American 246, 1982; Patridge cites E. Shaw, “Schooling Fishes,” American Scientist 66, 1978.

(4) Reynolds cites E. Shaw, “Schooling in Fishes: Critique and Review” in Development  and Evolution of Behavior. W. H. Freeman and Company, 1970.

(5) V. B. Scheffer, Spires of Form. Glimpses of Evolution, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, cited by Reynolds.

~ by bobgluck on August 9, 2016.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: