Self-organization and semiosis in jazz improvisation

Ashley Walton, Michael J. Richardson, Anthony Chemero

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The complex systems principle of self-organization provides a new way of understanding the behavioral dynamics behind the emergent, spontaneous exchanges of musical performance. In biological self-organization, energy is expended in the form of work which operates to maintain order in a system, collectively constraining the possible behaviors the components of the system can exhibit. When two self-organized systems become closely coupled they form a synergistic, teleodynamic system, such that in a circularly causal manner each system's work helps to maintain and self-sustain one another's behavioral dynamics. The semiotic exchange between two improvising jazz musicians can also be understood as forming a synergistic, teleodynamic system, with musicians expending energy in the form of musical ‘work' that operates to mutually constrain the semiotic form of their own and their co-musicians playing behavior. In more specific terms, the two musicians form a higher-order autopoietic system that both creates and maintains the collective order of the co-playing musicians via the nonlinear, self-organizing dynamics that characterize non-equilibrium dissipative systems. Here the authors introduce this self-organization framework and describe its implications for developing new theories of musical semiotics that adequately address the spontaneous and emergent nature of improvised musical performances. The authors also describe how corresponding methods of non-linear time series analyses can provide the tools necessary for explicating the dynamical processes that shape such complex social exchanges.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12-25
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Signs and Semiotic Systems (IJSSS)
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • embodiment
  • improvisation
  • non-linear time series analysis
  • self-organization
  • semiotics
  • thermodynamics


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