What Neuroscientists Need to Know Before They Research Jazz Musicians


I went to jazz school before stumbling into cognitive neuroscience. I'm not sure who is more surprised by this unlikely trajectory: scientists or musicians. Many people arrive to this field from linguistics, and I can't see why music is any less apropos than language to cognitive neuroscience. Sometimes we act as though there are magical barriers in the brain that separate these behaviours (or tool-use from dance, or arithmetic from weaving, etc.), when in reality, these categories are culturally defined and share many overlapping subcomponents. 

Anyways, there are actually many musician-scientists around, but in my anecdotal experience, the majority seem to be classically trained. It isn't in itself a bad thing, but there's a troubling aspect to this homogeneity of musical backgrounds among researchers. 

First and foremost, the diversity of traditions, communities, and aesthetics known collectively as jazz have enormous potential as a domain in which to explore human mind and behaviour.

Secondly, I sometimes worry that jazz is misrepresented by the scant literature in which it does figure-often as some kind of fun and outlandish cousin to classical music. I would argue that the systematic, improvisational, and interactional aspects of jazz make it uniquely well-equipped for cognitive science. Jazz covers a variety of skills and strategies central to domain-general human learning, ingenuity, and collaboration, and its form and structure make it highly adaptable to the laboratory (well, at least as adaptable as all our other non-ecologically valid versions of stuff).

Finally, jazz is Black American Music. It embodies a history and continuing practice that exists outside of the Western European institutional tradition, which dominates psychology and brain sciences to this day, despite calls to address this problem. That isn't to say that jazz hasn't maintained a close and syncretic relationship with classical music, and it's seen its own forms of gentrification, so recruiting jazz musicians won't guarantee you a more diverse participant pool. But in terms of its temporal structure, social function, and many formal elements, jazz is a great place to start exploring human capacities you just won't find in most classical music environments.

So, what do neuroscientists (or psychologists and cognitive scientists) need to know about jazz?

Although they're frequently compared and contrasted, jazz and classical are not just different musical languages, aesthetics, or styles. They function very differently. The types of skills, the forms of collaboration, the goals, the very feeling of and ways of experiencing the music-these dissimilarities are not trivial.

I am going to make a crude sports analogy. For science!

First, compare classical music performance to artistic swimming (also known as synchronised swimming-please, just stay with me). Both encompass flawless technical mastery; relatively little spontaneity; strong emotive communication; expressive phrasing; and a cohesive narrative that may unfold over many minutes. There are solo, duo, and ensemble configurations, wherein the exact roles and moving parts are clearly defined and executed as a series of collectively anticipated, collaborative actions.

Jazz, in this ridiculous metaphor, can be thought of more like water polo. It requires a level of training comparable to artistic swimming, but rather than learn to recite a memorisable ground truth (i.e., the musical score or swim routine), both jazz musicians and water polo players practice generative skills and rehearse scenarios in which to deploy them. The structure of each performance or match may be formulaic: standard tunes have intros, outros, and solo choruses; and games have quarters, time limits, penalty shootouts. But the content that emerges within these forms is undecided, spontaneously produced, improvisational, and contingent. In addition, the musicians' or players' positions are a little more loosely assumed, and are flexible to changing constraints and unpredictable circumstances. But don't be fooled: you are unlikely to witness "pure", random spontaneity. The same way water polo players practice drills and tactics, jazz musicians spend long hours listening, copying, and reconfiguring musical vocabulary into endless possible combinations. The flow, ingenuity, and transcendental aspects of the music are realised when all this rehearsal comes together in the moment, not unlike when a string of seamless passes lead to an elegant, unexpected goal.

I can imagine the temptation for music psychologists and neuroscientists to pit jazz and classical musicians against each other in an attempt to answer questions about difficult to define terms like "creativity" or "openness". This sells both jazz and classical music short! Being a good classical musician requires immense creativity and physical artfulness. Moreover, within the classical music world, there are plenty of examples of new music and historical performance practices that embrace improvisation. You can paradoxically also be a very boring, convention-bound jazz musician who calculates solos the way an algorithm would. 

In summary, although there is plenty of overlap (e.g., virtuosity, interpersonal coordination, emotional interchange), you shouldn't directly compare jazz and classical musicians without also accounting for some fairly profound ways in which they diverge-both in training, and in how the music functions on a very basic level.