All things tend towards Jazz. Do you have the mind of a musical genius?

Clark Terry flugelhornMany of us love the improvisational nature of jazz music – the spontaneity, randomness and beauty of the onthe- spot harmonies can be breathtaking. However, as our Evolution Guru Charlie Harvey explains, a love for jazz may be more important than you suspect: it may have helped us out of the Stone Age…

Midnight is approaching. Smoke fills the air of the dark, subterranean jazz club. People crowd the room, drinking heavily and talking softly. As tonight’s performers take to the stage, silence descends on the waiting audience, afraid that they might miss a single note. Why such reverence? Because the music they are about to hear is improvised – it has never before been performed, and will never be played again.

Jazz music, above all else, is characterised by improvisation. The ability to effortlessly pluck melodies and harmonies from the air is highly prized. While great composers spend years or even decades on their creations, jazz musicians have only the smallest fraction of a second to create a melody that sounds like it was deliberately and methodically prepared. How are these cool characters able to pull of such amazing musical feats?

Learn my Jazz Lingo!

Many people might be incredibly jealous of a musician who can seemingly rattle off a new piece of music in a heartbeat, putting their skill down to innate talent. But no one is really born an improviser. Behind the scenes, every musician puts in thousands of hours of hard work: jazz players spend years learning different patterns – or ‘licks’, as they are called – and often copy more established performers. Much like a child learning a language, once the player has learnt the grammar and vocabulary of jazz, they are able to construct any musical sentence they wish.

In language, every word you choose to speak could be replaced by one with a similar meaning. It is the same for musical notes; jazz musicians have dozens of notes to choose from at any one time. Something must be happening in the brain for them to choose one note over the other. What is the source of this creativity, and why do many of us find it so exhilarating to listen to?

Music to live survive by

Mary Osborne, Vi Redd, Dottie Dodgion, Marian McPartland & Lynn MilanoPsychologist Geoffrey Miller believes that all creativity – whether it be Miles Davis on his trumpet, Picasso with his paintbrush, or Bill Gates with his computer code – is a sign of an active, intelligent mind. While it might not be as highly prized as attractiveness, intelligence is certainly something we all hope for in our partners. Not only does being smart make you more interesting company, but it can also help you survive. Before the advent of modern civilisations, having a big brain was crucial for finding shelter, hunting prey and outwitting predators.

Being able to creatively use common materials around you to find solutions to existing problems would have been a very helpful trait. Doing it is deceptively tricky. An annoying question sometimes asked in job interviews is “list as many uses for a brick as you can.” After building part of a house, and a paperweight, most of us begin to struggle. Creating axes from stone lying around was an immensely important landmark in human evolution – so much so that we named a whole age after it.

Most of us these days don’t have to use our heads to survive – indeed, many people seem to actively enjoy not having to do so. But those who do have had to find other ways to demonstrate the brain’s adaptability, by putting down the axe and picking up the sax.

Mapping the musical mind

Improvisation is more than just an enjoyable activity for listeners – scientists are fascinated by how the brain is activated when a musician starts creating music. So much so that, back in 2008, a group of researchers placed jazz musicians in MRI machines to monitor their brain activity. They found that parts of the mind that are responsible for self-monitoring and controlling personal behaviour effectively shut down, with the parts of the brain linked to “selfinitiated thoughts” firing up.

You can read their findings here.

Kind of (Chaotic) Blue

Entropy is a term used by physicists to describe randomness or disorder. Water molecules in melting ice gain entropy as they become more and more jumbled up. This same measurement can also be used to describe jazz piano solos. A team of researchers made talented pianists play two pieces – one was a rehearsed solo, the other was an improvised piece. Measuring things like rhythm, timing and volume, the researchers found that – as expected – improvisation had a much larger amount of ‘entropy’. What’s more, they found that passionate jazz aficionados preferred listening to the higherentropy music. So, to rewrite a law of thermodynamics – in a closed system, all things tend towards jazz. Entropy, unpredictability, creativity – whatever you call it, it’s an important skill to have.

Kenny Burrell - guitarObviously, though, there is a limit to how much randomness we can take. In the concert hall, a completely random player would be booed off stage. On the prehistoric African savannah, completely random behaviours would likely result in your death – or even worse, you’d look plain silly. Being able to generate novel ways of moving and behaving is important, but so too is retaining those that work best.

Sociologist Donald Campbell likened this to the theory of natural selection: life produces many beautiful animal variations on the same theme, but only the fittest survive. The jazz musicians will produce thousands of musical tunes in a lifetime, but only the ones that get the best audience reaction will survive to be heard another day.

Our brains have had thousands of years to evolve into the most creative machines in the universe. Whatever your particular musical tastes – jazz, classical, post-apocalyptic- Belgian-trance – they are all manifestations of the brain’s awesome and unparalleled power to create.

How creative are you?

The Microsoft Interview is a job interview technique first developed by Microsoft to test the problem solving and creative abilities of potential candidates. Similar questions are now used by companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google.

Try out some Microsoft Interview styled questions, to find out just how creative you truly are:

  • Design a coffee maker that will be used by astronauts
  • How would you test a pen?
  • Design a TV remote control with only two buttons
  • How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?
  • How many golf balls does it take to fill a school bus?
  • Why is the manhole cover round?
  • List ten things you can do with a pencil. You have 15 seconds.

Find out more about the Microsoft Interview technique at Wikipedia.

Issue Four

Article by Charlie Harvey

April 17, 2012

Charlie is a writer and blogger with an unhealthy appetite for science. With experience working for the BBC and New Scientist and he was once described as “one of the most talented science writers of the last decade” (by his mother). You can find out more about him at, and also follow him on Twitter at @charlesharvey.

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