I went to jazz school before stumbling into cognitive neuroscience, having earned a BMus in guitar. I’m not sure who is more surprised by this apparently unlikely trajectory: scientists or jazz musicians! Sometimes we act as though there is some magical barrier in the brain that separate topics like language from music (or tool-use from dance, or arithmetic from weaving, or…). I can’t see why music isn’t more or less apropos to cognitive neuroscience than any other human pursuit.
Anyways, there are actually many amphibious musician-scientists around, but in my anecdotal experience, the majority seem to be classically trained. This of course isn’t 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 are desperately untapped given their potential as a domain for understanding human minds, brains, and bodies. Moreover, I sometimes worry that jazz is misrepresented by the scant literature in which it does figure—often as some kind of fun and zany cousin to classical music. Actually, the systematic, improvisational, and interactional aspects of jazz make it uniquely well-equipped for cognitive science, and not just the musical kind. 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 (um, well, at least as adaptable as all our other non-ecological versions of stuff).
Finally, jazz is Black American Music. It embodies a history and continuing practice that exists outside of the Western institutional tradition, which dominates psychology and brain sciences to this day, despite calls to address our problem with narrow samples and ethnocentric assumptions. 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 (particularly in post-secondary settings), so recruiting jazz musicians won’t guarantee you a diverse participant pool. But in terms of rhythm, function, and form, 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, cognitive scientists, etc.) need to know about jazz and the musicians or audience who produce it? I won’t rehash what is readily available on the origins and current scene, but there are a few major points I would like to cover.Continue reading What Neuroscientists Need to Know Before They Do Research with Jazz Musicians