Jazz and the Human Brain

Jazz music has been shown to have effects on the brain that are unlike those of any other music. First, jazz works best in a certain key signature, in a narrow range of tempos, and with a certain kind of chord progression. Next, jazz improvisations tend to sound different from each other. If you perform 10 jazz improvisations in a row, they will have some similar sounds, but will also have some unique sounds. You can’t predict exactly what the unique sounds will be, but they will sound good to you. Finally, jazz is more likely than other kinds of music to be played by groups of instruments rather than just one instrument at a time.

Jazz music does something to your brain. It doesn’t just mean that you like listening to jazz or that you think it’s sophisticated or that it reminds you of the Rat Pack. The music actually changes your brain, in ways visible on a scan. Those changes are why jazz improvisation is so hard to do well. They also hint at why it feels so satisfying when someone else does it. Improvising is one of the most challenging things the human mind can do. If you’ve ever tried to improvise an extended solo on the piano, let alone in real time to a rhythm section, you know how much concentration and dexterity it takes. But when you’re listening, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Jazz isn’t playing music while following rules; it’s making up new rules while playing music. And because the brain areas that respond to improvisation overlap with those that respond to speaking, jazz improvisation makes us feel as if there are no rules at all!