Translating Improvisation | AHRC Project
AHRC Project

Into the Key of Law: Transposing Musical Improvisation. The Case of Child Protection in Northern Ireland
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
The project was funded from June 2014 to December 2015.
Please check back here for future outputs relating to this project.

***Just Improvisation: Enriching Law through Musical Techniques, Discourses, and Pedagogies***
Special Issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation, Vol 12, No 1

***What The Participants Are Saying***
Click on the image for the digital version of the booklet.

Book Chapter Output: Ramshaw, Sara, and Paul Stapleton. ‘Un-remembering: Countering Law’s Archive. Improvisation as Social Practice’ in Stewart Motha and Honni van Rijswijk, eds., Law, Violence, Memory: Uncovering the Counter-Archive (Routledge, 2015) 50-69.
Law, Violence, Memory

Research Team

Principle Investigator (PI)
Dr. Sara Ramshaw, Senior Lecturer, University of Exeter, School of Law

Co-Investigator (CI)
Dr. Paul Stapleton, Senior Lecturer, Queen’s University Belfast, Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC)

Research Fellow
Dr. Adnan Marquez-Borbon, Queen’s University Belfast, Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC)

Research Assistants
Dr. Kathryn McNeilly, Queen’s University Belfast, School of Law
Seamus Mulholland, Barrister-at-Law

Research Assistant & Archivist
Matilde Meireles, PhD Candidate, Queen’s University Belfast, Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC)

This project seeks to realise the craft of improvising well via an attentive listening to the improvisational heart of Western common law and justice. Through this, the project aims to encourage more creative and responsive legal decision-making. The particular arena of attention in this instance is Northern Irish child protection law.

‘Transposition’ in music refers to the shifting of a melody, harmonic progression, or even an entire piece of music, to another key. This research project, the first of any such interdisciplinary collaboration, interrogates the possibility of transposing the ‘language’ of musical improvisation, that is, its discourses, practices and pedagogies, into the ‘key’ or discipline of law, the aim being for academics and practitioners of musical improvisation and law to develop a shared language and exchange knowledge and ideas that will ultimately lead to better decision-making in both areas.

Why Improvisation?

Improvisation, as the ‘unforeseen’ or that which occurs ‘on the spur of the moment’, is meant to eschew all law, convention, structure or form. Improvising musicians and critical improvisation scholars criticise this understanding of improvisation. To improvise well requires enormous discipline, skill and technical knowledge, as well as an attention to ‘background, history, and culture’ (Lewis 2004: 153). Rather than eschewing formality or structure, the improvised act can only be understood in relation to the pre-existent, be it the original melody, theme or musical tradition. In the words of Charles Mingus, ‘[y]ou gotta improvise on somethin”. To do otherwise would make its recognition as improvisation impossible.

Although improvisation is most often associated with the musical realm – for example, jazz music – the Principal Investigator of this project has written extensively about the fundamentally improvisatory nature of the Common Law (see, for example, Ramshaw 2013: 3). As no two legal actions can be exactly the same, each judicial application of existing rules or past precedents to new facts creates, in fact, a new and improvised law. And it is the very nature of legal judgment that elicits a negotiation between the singularity of a particular case and the pre-existing rules or laws to which it must adhere or follow. Novelty and creativity, however, must be subordinated to tradition and precedent in order for law to remain legitimate and commanding in contemporary society. Law, in other words, cannot be seen to be produced on the spur of the moment. To be just, it must apply fairly and equally and be known by all in advance (Ramshaw 2010: 134; see also, Ramshaw 2006: 4).

While not disputing the importance of fairness and equality in relation to law, this project calls for increased recognition of the improvised creativity that is at the heart of legal reasoning. One of the key tenets of critical improvisational research is the belief in improvisation’s emancipatory promise. Instead of being unplanned and purely spontaneous, improvisation self-consciously engages with tradition and convention, enabling resistance to past oppression and injustice and opening up possibilities for new ways of being together in society, both locally and at the global level.

This project thereby engages with improvisation as a ‘social practice’ (Heble and Seimerling 2010: 5; Fischlin and Heble 2004: 11) applied to the discipline of law with the aim of facilitating new kinds of intercultural and interdisciplinary conversations and fostering new, better, ways of being with one another, both as individuals and as members of diverse communities, in a multicultural and, in the case of Northern Ireland, a divided society.

Why Child Protection Law?

Following the Final Report of the Family Justice Review panel (2011), and the government’s response to this report (2012), significant changes have been proposed (many of which were implemented in April 2014) to the organisation and administration of the family courts in England and Wales. Of particular concern is the issue of delay in care proceedings, which can have extremely negative and detrimental effects on children in care.

Contemporaneous to the Family Justice Review, Professor Eileen Munro was asked by the government to conduct an independent review of child protection in England. The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report (2011) (and the 2012 Progress Report that followed) identified the systematic issue of inferior decisions being made by child protection professionals because too much attention is given to formality (e.g., timescales), without any gain in the sense of this leading to better decisions. In essence, what is being called for is the creation of an adaptive, flexible environment in which improvisation can take place, where improvisation must be understood as the confidence and technical ability to negotiate a smooth path between the demands of the general system of rules and an individual case.

Following Munro, this project aims to determine how best to equip legal practitioners, technically and theoretically, to be confident in the improvisatory role which they are being called to undertake. As musicians are best placed to understand improvisational ‘language’, transposition of knowledge is necessary from the musical to the legal realm. The overall aim of the project is therefore to educate child protection professionals about the complex structures of improvisation and help them to understand the benefits of improvisational practices in legal decision-making. The impact of this project is, at least initially, primarily educational in nature. However, it is hoped that, from the empirical research and improvisation workshops (see below for more detail), the very process by which decisions are made in NI child protection cases will be impacted. Moreover, the techniques taught in the improvisation workshops, as a practical means of introducing and experiencing improvisation, can then be integrated into local law school and legal practice curriculum, as well as judicial training and education. Thus, while focused on local child protection law, the project has the potential to impact legal decision-making and education more generally and at the global level.

Why Northern Ireland?

Improvisational techniques are particularly suitable to a society such as NI, with a long history of division and conflict. According to Fischlin and Heble, improvisation, as a form of creative decision-making, risk-taking, and collaboration, emerged out of marginalised cultures, particularly indigenous and African slave populations, helping aggrieved peoples adapt and respond to instances of discrimination and oppressive social contexts (Fischlin and Heble 2004: 14). Improvisation, in other words, utilises ‘the materials at hand to create powerful and enduring resources for hope, often out of seemingly hopeless situations, … find[ing] “a way out of no way”’ (Heble and Siemerling 2005: 12).

One means of encouraging transformation in a divided society is through the skill of ‘deep listening’ – to persons, the environment and the sounds of daily life, both inside and outside the courtroom. ‘Deep listening’ is an improvisatory practice developed by Pauline Oliveros, which involves an ethical commitment and responsibility to, and interaction with, all that surrounds us. It forces individuals, such as child protection professionals, to ‘stay present’, that is, remain in the moment and focus on the decisions at hand. It also teaches people to be aware of others and their surroundings and to take risks, trusting themselves that they know the right answers, but also understanding that such decision-making requires extensive knowledge and skill, and much practice to get it right.

With the recent changes to the family justice system not yet (if at all) applying here, the researchers are keen to assess how child protection in NI might differ from other jurisdictions and how innovative solutions developed from this research might also be beneficial elsewhere in the United Kingdom (and beyond).

Statement of Aims and Objectives

The overall aim of the project is a critical review of expert disciplinary processes (child protection law and improvised music) leading to a cross-disciplinary exchange and a multi-disciplinary knowledge transfer. Although focusing on child protection law, for the reasons outlined in the case for support, the findings have potential impact not only on other areas of law, but also the field of improvised music.

The specific aims of the project are as follows:

(1) To identify the scope for improvisation in child protection law, where transposition might be welcome or resisted and to encourage transparency in legal decision making;

(2) To identify the necessity for and importance of improvisatory techniques in decision-making pertaining to child protection issues; and

(3) To identify the key characteristics of good improvisation in law with the aim of generating better (that is, faster, less formalised and more reflective and adaptive) legal decision-making in child protection law.


To achieve the above aims, the project has numerous objectives:

(1) To conduct library-based research and an extensive analysis of academic and policy literature on the deficiencies and current problems in child protection law in Northern Ireland;

(2) To conduct research into the disciplined practices of musical improvisation, both library-based and empirical through semi-structured interviews with local improvising musicians;

(3) To conduct fieldwork in the jurisdiction, comprising primarily of 30-40 semi-structured interviews and 2-3 focus groups (Belfast, Derry/Londonderry and one further location to be determined) with professionals working in the field of child protection, including social workers, policy makers, community activists, lawyers and judges;

(4) To organise 2 improvisation workshops, which would invite interested participants from a range of backgrounds and professions (such as legal professionals, social workers, community activists, policy makers and musicians) to explore improvisatory techniques and skills in small groups;

(5) To organise and host a symposium (with accompanying concert by local improvising musicians) in Belfast nearing the completion of the project;

(6) To produce a scholarly Special Issue from the papers presented at the symposium;

(7) To produce and freely distribute 2 co-authored scholarly articles, one of which will be published in the Special Issue;

(8) To produce and freely disseminate non-academic outputs, such as an informational brochure on the project and an article in a non-academic resource, which would be accessible to the non-academic audience;

(9) To develop a project webpage, which will provide information about the project, such as its aims and objective, the people involved and forthcoming events, e.g., symposium, concert and improvisation workshops;

(10) To disseminate the findings from this project at a range of international and national conferences and on the Social Sciences Research Network (SSRN), both Research and Working Paper series; and
(11) To disseminate the findings from the project to the non-academic beneficiaries through an information session.