Your Brain on Jazz

(Editor’s note: This article from Susan Hornik is from the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazine.)

Listening to the velvet nuances of jazz may be a musical dessert for the ears, but it can also help reduce anxiety and improve one’s focus. Asked why jazz could have such an effect, Dr. Mark Jude Tramo, a professor at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, says that, “jazz stretches the brain’s capacity for sequential operations and ‘working memory’ because its melodies typically include twelve pitches per octave.” Some cognitive scientists consider “working memory” as our available, short-term storage of information, while others view it as the “retrieval structures” for information stored in our long-term memory.

Tramo further explains that “this challenges the ‘seven plus-or-minus-two’ limit on tonal information processing, imposed by the cerebral cortex on perception in the auditory (and all sensory) modalities.” Tramo was referring to psychology pioneer George A. Miller’s highly influential paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” which proposed that adults could store between five and nine items in their working memory. Many historians cite this paper as the rationale for Bell Labs deciding on seven digits for telephone numbers when creating the current system now used in the United States. Tramo contends that jazz musicians, by playing those wonderful jazz tunes, have enhanced their cognitive processing (and one wonders if they could easily remember longer phone numbers than we currently use).

So what better way to find out about this phenomenon than to go to the source? Brain World spoke with some of the top talents playing jazz today. These hep cats enlightened us on exactly why this particular genre of music — enhanced their cognition and motivation — and helped to relax their body, mind, and spirit.

KEVIN EUBANKS, GUITARIST AND BANDLEADER, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO,” ON CREATIVITY:

“Any type of artistic endeavor, including jazz, that allows the brain to create — instead of mimic — is something that the brain is naturally uniquely designed for. In other words, doing something in the moment — instead of by habit — perhaps allows the brain to function in a way that is more positive and healthy.

“The more comprehensively the brain works, i.e. creatively, which is the basis of jazz, the healthier the brain might be. This might give some insight into certain mental health issues and treatment. Creativity — as opposed to just isolated scripted functions — as a way of life. That’s what jazz is all about.”

SARAH MORROW, TROMBONIST AND CO-PRODUCER, “SKE-DAT-DEDAT: THE SPIRIT OF SATCH,” ON HEALING:

“Based on the way I feel before I play, versus after, it literally has a strong physiological effect: blood pressure is lowered, pain lessens and disappears. If I’m sick and must perform, I’m always better once I’m in the music. It’s as if jazz bridges the gap between positive and negative experiences and manages to override any short circuits — like feelings of pain, loss, or stress — that we have tuned out, or turned off, during daily life.

“Music knows what we need when we need it — I’ve noticed that I’m attracted to particular sounds — particular tonalities, at different times in my life, depending on what I’m going through emotionally. Sometimes it even seems to know me better than I know myself — it touches deep into my subconscious mind and heals me in areas me I didn’t know I was struggling.”

WILL BRAHM, GUITARIST, HOMENAJE, ON IDENTITY:

“It keeps my brain occupied, when I play at music gigs and practicing. It has me be mentally healthy and thinking forward. Plus, this music expands me creatively — in how I selected my band’s name and the songs that I compose and arrange. I feel so lucky to have found something that satisfies me so much.

“Jazz is my family, my religion, my life and my world — my child and my girlfriend. As a kid, I listened to it constantly before I ever played it. Once I picked up my guitar, it seeped into every corner of my existence. It’s my companion and it’s there for me unconditionally.”

FRANK LONDON, TRUMPETER, THE KLEZMATICS, ON MINDFULNESS:

“Jazz improvisation is a combination of deep meditation and complex analytical problem solving — all done in real time. The improviser is confronting an almost mathematical challenge: create melodies that conform structurally, rhythmically, and harmonically to the given composition — simultaneously drawing from one’s inner creativity, from music that one has practiced, and from what the other musicians are playing. The other musicians are themselves listening, improvising, and interacting. It is a fluid system; one is both responding to and provoking the other musicians at every moment. One must be fully focused on a wide array of inputs.

“When I am done giving a concert which has involved such deep concentration, listening, creation, and improvisation, I often have difficulty speaking coherently. Words do not come easily, and thoughts do not translate into language. Whatever part of my brain that I tap into in order to engage in the act of improvisation — is almost opposed to the part of my consciousness that forms language and conversation — on the other hand, like the practice of meditating, the act of improvising has taught me how to be fully aware and in the moment.”

JANICE MAUTNER MARKHAM, JAZZ TEACHER AND VIOLINIST, MOSTLY KOSHER, ON NOVELTY:

“The magic of jazz is the spontaneous nature of the art. When I am teaching and ask the kids to improvise, at first there is often this intellectual and emotional fear — a fear of failing and of the unknown. But, to leap in as a musician and a listener means you can be open to a new experience, and this is such a healthy emotional place to be. I often hear of music and art therapists playing jazz for their patients, and I think this is because there is a new page to turn in each phrase — a new feeling to feel and emotion to experience that is unpredictable. I think ultimately jazz can feed the soul and add to a sense of joy and fearlessness. These are welcome qualities as a musician and a listener.”

STANLEY CLARKE, BASSIST, RETURN TO FOREVER, ON WELL-BEING:

“I lived in a racist neighborhood. It was a very hard time for me. I was also very shy; I did not know where I fit in or what to do. Still, my mother, who was a semiprofessional opera singer, really inspired me to get into jazz. She made sure that music was there for me, and it really made a difference. As I grew older, I really felt it in my soul.

“I was a habitual practice guy — that was very relaxing. I think if you don’t have an emotional outlet, then you’re taking trips to the psychiatrist and you stay in your room because you have such low self-esteem. Jazz truly gives people the riches. It’s beautiful.”
 

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KATISSE BUCKINGHAM, SAXOPHONIST, FLUTIST, AND SPOKEN WORD ARTIST, ON ANXIETY:

“What I have done is put myself in a profession for which I’m well suited, because the things I am asked to do are extremely difficult and demanding. And it can be stressful. Some of the time, someone you’re playing with is too loud, or rushing or dragging or something. And that’s a distraction. I ‘think’ when all the pistons are not firing in the other players. I’m a perfectionist. I see the smallest details.

“What I try to do is prepare as much as I can. That is what gives me peace of mind. Being prepared relives my anxiety quite a bit.”

(Find Susan Hornik’s “Your Brain On Jazz” and many other great reads in the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazine.)

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