Jazz improvisation and your brain: The key to creativity?

After hearing my daughter compete in a social studies contest, I was happy to see that she’s one of these people that think on their feet. Sure, she studies, she quizzes herself. But in a pinch, she’s able to pivot in another direction and hold her own. This reminded me of something jazz musicians do each day.

Jazz involves many academic and mechanical devices, and their part of the arsenal a jazz musician uses regularly. But beyond the technicalities, which have to be mastered nonetheless, you need to be able to think on your feet. Jazz musicians toss around musical clips and ideas to each other, and besides knowing where to go harmonically, you have to set up a mental algorithm that is more like the code behind computer programming.

Programmers work a lot with if-then statements. Put simply, when a jazz musician hears one musical idea, that idea goes through a set of conditional decisions based on the musical experience and knowledge of the player…all at breakneck speed. If the saxophone plays a riff that suggests a certain key, rhythm, song, or any other “hook”, the receiving musician has to evaluate all of this information, and in turn, converse back an appropriate musical reply.

When we say “breakneck speed”, what we’re really talking about is a micro-nano second of thought. At the same time, the musician is listening ahead of the players, a sort of cosmic prediction where you try to read the mind of the other players and guess where they’re going.

It’s quite complicated, but a musician explained it as being akin to driving a car. “When you drive, you’re not looking at what’s directly in front of your bumper, you’re looking two, maybe three blocks ahead. Besides thing about ‘where am I going’, I’m thinking about that blue car ahead with the blinker on, is he going to make a right turn? Is he really going to make it from the left lane? The girl driving next to me who’s texting while she’s putting on makeup…is she going to slide into me, and if she does, where or when is this going to happen. It looks like it’s going to rain…will everyone begin to drive crazy?”

In summary, whether you play piano or drive a car, one puts on a creative hat that considers all of the situations a certain moment presents, and forces you to use your accumulated wisdom or sense of prediction to solve a problem… Creativity, like jazz or traffic, demands at times creativity of sorts that presents as an ultimate “live in the now” moment.

And this creativity can be found in many walks of life. The courtroom lawyer bantering with a witness or opposing counsel. The baseball batter whose trying to suss out the intent of a pitcher. The chess player, thinking 10 moves ahead. The mixed martial arts opponent or football player that at the same time is working out a defense/offense play.

Jazz music may have a slight lead in the creative department, but hot on its heals is most of the disciplines that require creative thought to hone its edge.

Here’s CNN’s take: Jazz improv could hold the key to creativity