THE BRAIN ON JAZZ
A study conducted by Dorothy Retallack in 1973 played music to plants for two weeks. Plants “listening” to classical and jazz music physically leaned 15 to 20 degrees toward the radio while plants “listening” to rock music grew away from the radio, became sick, and died. I am not sure of this but I know that I tilt towards jazz.
DETROIT JAZZ OIL/CANVAS
JAZZ IMPROVISATION AND THE BRAIN
When I paint for myself I often listen to music. When I listen to music I often see paintings. I create images in my mind. I can’t help it. I am really following the turns and twists of the musicians as they perform their creative acrobatics. I visualize their changes in direction or force into a brush loaded with paint slashing back and forth across a canvas. When I do commissioned work I am guided by my guesses of what a client might be looking for. Seldom do buyers ask me to compromise, I just do.
Jazz musicians do not compromise with their freedom of expression, especially to interpret and improvise.
Interpretation and improvisation have benefits we aren’t always aware of. It turns out it is great brain food. When we are asked to think on the fly we are actively exercising our gray matter. What jazz artists do would be considered an extreme workout.
When we listen to jazz musicians improvise it may seem like their music-making process is simply magic. But research of jazz musicians’ brain activity as they improvise is helping to shed light on the neurosciences behind creativity. It turns out that creating the magic that is jazz is not as serendipitous a process as we might have thought.
WHETHER WE ARE AN ARTIST OR A LISTENER/VIEWER OUR BRAINS ARE WORKING IN A VERY HEALTHY WAY. CHARLES LIMB STUDIED AND CONFIRMED THE POSITIVE EFFECT THAT JAZZ HAS ON THE BRAIN
DR CHARLES LIMB
“I started looking at jazz musicians playing the blues as a way to understand how the creative brain emerges from a neuroscience perspective,” Charles Limb
Charles Limb while an associate professor of Head and Neck Surgery at John’s Hopkins University designed a plastic keyboard that jazz musicians could both play and hear while they were inside an MRI machine. Limb asked the musicians to play a memorized piece of music, then improvise with another musician in the control room. Limb captured images of their brains as they played.
HERE ARE SOME EXCERPTS FROM HIS FINDINGS I FOUND INTERESTING
“When musicians go to an improvisation, the brain switches and the lateral prefrontal lobes responsible for conscious self monitoring became less engaged. Musicians turn off the self-censoring in the brain so they can generate novel ideas without restrictions. Interestingly, the improvising brain activates many of the same brain centers as language, reinforcing the idea that the back and forth of improvisation between musicians is akin to its own language.
When you’re trying so hard to come up with ideas you can’t do it, you can’t force it. The same principle applies to something like writer’s block. When you’re trying so hard to come up with ideas you can’t do it, you can’t force it. Then at another time, some switches flip and you’ve got this flow going on, this generation of ideas.
I can’t think of anything more mentally demanding, especially for youngsters in early stages of learning music. Early middle school is a particularly time-sensitive period for mental development, and I suspect that middle school jazz bands can have disproportionate beneficial effects on brain development.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that mental challenge develops new connections in the brain and with it, new biological capabilities. In jazz, such mental enrichment enhances the ability to memorize, not only directly in terms of having to learn a large musical vocabulary and the rules of jazz, but also in terms of basic mental biology.”
A jazz player experiences enormous mental stimulation, Even as a listener, after a concert my untrained brain churns out a continuous stream of improvisation in my mind’s ear that can include multiple instruments that I have no idea how to play. A player has to engage the brain in multiple ways that classical musicians do not. First, there are added technical requirements, such as playing blue notes, swinging eighth notes, and unusual time signatures like 12/8 and 5/4 or complex African or Latin rhythms. Then there is the huge challenge of improvisation, which is basically composing on the fly.
When improvising, there is a safety net of knowing the proper chord structure and melody, but players have to have a huge musical vocabulary and realize in milliseconds what new notes will fit. They also have to listen hard so they can interact properly with what others in the band are playing. The “call and response” paradigm in jazz is actually musical conversation.
Listening is also fun, probably less so than playing jazz, but still a lot of fun. In San Antonio, Jim Cullum’s band used to be called the “Happy Jazz Band.” Think about where jazz came from. Wholesome fun promotes happiness. Happy brains learn better. They can also often live longer. Think about Preservation Hall in New Orleans. There and elsewhere around the country, many jazz artists are still performing sophisticated music in their 80s.
Learning jazz may be the ultimate in training young minds to think critically and creatively. Maybe we should consider the possibility that jazz-band students are such high achievers because their jazz training has trained their brains in invaluable learning capacities for hand-eye coordination, the ability to memorize, discipline, patience, critical and creative thinking, high-speed intellectual engagement with the ideas of others, and self-actualization and confidence.”
NOW THAT WE KNOW, WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
Knowing that jazz stimulates the brain, maybe we should force our brain to do some extra work by catching some jazz. Soon we will find our brains working at maximum efficiency – thinking further outside of the box while doing so.
Dr. Limb suggests that “jazz music and art in general is the best way to train our brains to think creatively. If you guys have a test coming up, or just want to be more creative – and more inspired – I recommend all of you download Coltrane’s entire discography, and start there. I have a feeling you’ll enjoy studying a lot more.”
You can take a shortcut to your brain growth and a good meal by coming down to the Dirty Dog Jazz Café. Doctor Gene Dunlap has a brain enhancement procedure waiting for you.