Your Brain on Jazz

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.”

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