What Neuroscientists Need to Know Before They Do Research with Jazz Musicians

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.

Although they’re frequently compared and contrasted, jazz and classical are NOT just different languages, aesthetics, or styles, et cetera. 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 not a team sports person, probably because I homeschooled. But I am going to make a crude sports analogy using the only team sports I did as a child.

First, I will compare classical music performance to synchronised swimming (stay with me). Both encompass flawless technical mastery; very little spontaneity; 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, on the other hand, is like water polo. It requires a level of training comparable to synchronised swimming, but rather than learn to recite a memorisable ground truth (i.e., the score/routine), jazz musicians/water polo players practice generative skills and rehearse scenarios in which to deploy them. In a performance/match, the action is formulaic in terms of form—standard tunes have intros, outros, and solo choruses; games have quarters, time limits, penalty shootouts—but undecided and spontaneously produced in terms of content. Both domains can be characterised as gameplay: improvisational and contingent.

Within the group, musicians’/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 woodshedding comes together across different people in the moment, not unlike when a string of seamless passes lead to an elegant, unexpected goal.

And that’s my hot take on swimming sports, jazz and classical music. I’ve made some gross generalisations here, and note that within the classical music world, there are plenty of examples of new music and historical performance practices that embrace improvisation, so please accept these ideas with a grain of salt. The point I’m trying to make is that, 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. 

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 ill-defined terms like “creativity” or “openness”. Please don’t, because it sells both jazz and classical music short! Being a good classical musician requires immense creativity and physical artfulness. You can paradoxically also be a very boring, convention-bound jazz musician who calculates solos the way an algorithm would (and they’re definitely out there). There are more precise, and in my opinion, more useful ways of operationalising how different types of musical experience shape our bodies and brains. 

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Alexis Deighton MacIntyre

PhD student in cognitive neuroscience, jazz guitarist, Vancouver Islander living in the UK. Centre for Music and Science, University of Cambridge; Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London.