My Brain On Jazz

When musicians play along together it isn’t just their instruments that are in time – their brain waves are too. from “Guitarists’ Brains Swing Together” Science Daily

photo of Jazz at JEN

Jazz at JEN

A few weeks ago, I attended (and performed at) a music technology/jazz educators co-conference. I dashed into the hotel deli at lunchtime intending to grab a sandwich “to go” but was stopped in my tracks by a jazz quintet led by trumpeter Ansyn Banks playing a lunchtime concert nearby. I immediately grabbed a table near the stage, ordered lunch, and settled in to listen. Something happens to the brain when listening to great live jazz. I don’t consider myself a jazz musician but I can speak the language enough to write for it and do some basic playing and improvising. As I listened, I was transported to another place. And this was not a “quiet as a mouse” polite audience concert hall – this was a public venue with food, drink, and lots of people in conversations who felt themselves drawn into the maelstrom of sound, the urgency of the message flowing from the stage. Feet and heads began to move, to nod, and a rhythmic oneness began to spread through the crowd.

As I listened, I could feel new neural pathways form and spark across the top of my head; long exaggerated words started to form in my mind. . …Fine………Ahhhhh………Mmmmmmm…..not unlike the murmurs one utters while eating a delicious meal.  And this WAS a delicious meal, an aural feast shared with hundreds of strangers who connected under the skin through a common language of improvisation – a central thread of sound that broke loose in unexpected ways and in brand new directions. And what was happening to my brain on jazz?

photo of Don Emberg

Dad at gig, circa 1940's

When I was a kid, I used to peek into the den while my dad and his musician friends gathered around the hi-fi (this was pre-stereo days.) They stood as a group, drinks in hand, intensely silent and leaning towards the speaker turned to maximum volume, listening to Stan Kenton or Count Basie.  Every so often they would yell “yeah!” in unison, free handing pumping the air, then return to their attentive stance.  This fascinated me – what did they hear in the music that triggered that spontaneous “yeah!” in unison? Years later, I was on the road with a band and we were up late after the gig, listening to a live recording of a friend’s jam session. An incredible moment within the performance happened, where all the players jelled into a whole greater than the parts, musical sparks flew, just the right notes were unexpectedly played, and we all yelled “yeah!” in unison. It was one of those moments where you stand beside yourself and say “hmmmmm.”  I called my father the next day and told him about my moment of insight, mystery solved – he was mightily amused.

Researchers interested in music and the brain have been studying what happens to musicians’ brains while they improvise instead of playing written pieces – as it turns out, there is some significant changes in brain activity. Science Daily reported the work of researchers at Johns Hopkins using MRI scans in “This is Your Brain on Jazz.” Furthermore, another study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig found that the brains of listeners change as well when they hear and recognize improvised music as opposed to music played as written. This explains that feeling of sparks and light in my limbic brain while listening to the Ansyn Banks Quintet at the Jazz Educators Network (JEN) conference (listen to some of Ansyn’s music).  The interesting thing is that the two National Standards in the Arts for music education that are least often taught are improvisation and composition – not a comfort zone for many traditional music educators.  As a composer, I think of jazz as extemporaneous composition and conversely, composition as improvisation in slow motion.  Both, when done well, incorporate the mastery of a set of musical skills that are then best forgotten, at least consciously, while in the act of creating new works.

photo of Sean Jones

Sean Jones

I’ve had the opportunity to compose a few pieces written for orchestra that include improvisational sections – it becomes a form of theme and variation, with some of the variations left in the hands of the performers.  One of my favorites is a piece commissioned for a children’s concert – an audience of 5000 upper elementary students is an awesome opportunity to play with musical ideas in an unusual way. I was asked to write a Theme and Variation style piece for orchestra and soloist that included improvisational opportunities for jazz trumpeter and composer Sean Jones, new to our faculty at that time. I was inspired by the memory of singing rounds in the car with my parents and brothers – we always “jazzed them up” by changing the timing, the key, and the melody. Here’s the opening of the piece, intended to reveal a surprise – see if you can guess the nursery song before the end of the clip. 


One of the first variations in the song is a jazz waltz. 


The next variation is a blues version, with the string players snapping their fingers and whispering “pop!” (the name of the piece) during the solo.  


I think that improvisation is really a life skill, not a creative act limited to the jazz idiom.  Kerry of Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog had two great posts recently about wildlife photography as a happy accident and how much planning he does as a landscape photographer. My reaction to his posts was “yes, but that is classic artistic improvisation!” – being incredibly prepared but then improvising when the opportunity arises. Improvisation extends to every day life, whether you are cooking, dancing, making up your own funny lyrics to a song, or having a great conversation.  I’m not the only one that thinks this. The same brain researchers who were featured in This Is Your Brain on Jazz said “. . . this type of brain activity may also be present during other types of improvisational behavior that are integral parts of life for artists and non-artists alike. For example . . . people are continually improvising words in conversations and improvising solutions to problems on the spot. Without this type of creativity, humans wouldn’t have advanced as a species. It’s an integral part of who we are. . .”

So, let the sparks fly, learn your craft – whatever it may be – so that it becomes an integral part of you, embrace spontaneity and allow yourself to improvise, freely and often. God bless the child . . .

I’ll let Sean Jones take it home in the finale of “Pop!” (and the sound of 5000 kids laughing)


Text, lyrics and music from “My Brain On Jazz” ©2012 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved

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22 thoughts on “My Brain On Jazz

  1. Pingback: United Artists Foundation ~ Artists Supporting Arts in Schools | THE STEAM ACADEMY

    • Thanks for visiting, Tracy and you are so right – “rich activity” is a great way to put it. Music is hard to filter out – harder to shut your ears than your eyes – so it is always a pleasure when music has such a positive effect.

  2. Marvelous post! Wow! I am a singer (x-opera) but I love all types of music, especially jazz. That was so much fun listening to the variations on a theme (I did guess the nursery song early on). What a delightful experience and education. More please! :) I am so impressed with your talent and knowledge of music.

    • Eleanor, thank you so much – high praise coming from a fellow musician! This was such a fun piece to write and even more fun to see kids react to it. I didn’t include the first play-through of the theme – they started singing along, which was so sweet! The best part of all was to see them crowd around Sean after the concert – they had a new kind of hero, which made my heart sing.

    • Carol, thanks so much for visiting and commenting. Pop! was a fun project and I enjoyed connecting the dots between the inner and outer world of music. My mother tells me that your father was one of those guys yelling “Yeah!” in the den :-)

  3. Brilliant post. Musical variations are very intriguing … and if memory correctly recalls, you have done this before – and I loved it then too!

    You got me thinking of live music, and it seems that moving to the music (for me) is more of a jazz characteristic.

    I recall SONY creating a CD to classical music for your brain … and Phillips creating an entire series of CD around themes as Beethoven at Bedtime, Bach for Breakfast, Mozart for Meditation, and so on. We’ll – during my science teaching days I incorporated them into my classroom. In doing a lot of activities/labs, I had the music in the background most of those days.

    Great post Lynn!

    • Frank, thanks for the kind words. Yes, I am brave (or foolhardy) enough to combine classical ensembles with improvisation — I’ve been doing it for a while and really like the challenge. You may be thinking of Sketches of America, or the Fibonacci post from last week. I’ve got a few others up my sleeve as well – future posts. Of course, jazz isn’t the only improvisational music – another future post!

      There are quite a few studies that show the link between brain activity, physiology and music – a lot of them show changes in respiration, heartbeat, focus, etc. How cool that you played music during your classes! See the comment from Anne below about how she uses it to concentrate while writing. I got through my senior tutorial project in college (2 semester research project with a 60 page paper) by playing classical music while researching and writing, so I know that zone really well.

      As for moving to music, well, I play African pop and Latin salsa while cooking – nothing like a little dancing to spice up a meal!

  4. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson:

    “Jazz…pfffttt…they’re just making it up as they go along…”

    (See the Homer Simpson episode)

    Fascinating post, Lynn. Your characterization of what I was doing as improvisation really made me think…and will continue to make me do so.I may produce a post of my own along these lines in time. Really, really intriguing stuff!

      • Oh, and the end of that clip is so sad :-( One of our public radio stations here in Pittsburgh used to be a great combination of NPR and jazz, with a lot of local recognition of live jazz in local clubs. The station was sold and it is now all talk radio (they moved the jazz portion online) – I understand the economics but I miss that jazz connection. Sigh.

  5. Love the post! Makes me think of how I love a good challenge, I am convinced it must be related to what they say about spontaneity and improvisation. Also I cannot write without listening to music. The type of music is crucial though, it has to help me create a bubble-world in which I don’t notice anything and simply write…

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