Creativity has been defined as the ability to produce work that is novel, high in quality, and appropriate to an audience. While the nature of the creative process is under debate, many believe that creativity relies on real-time combinations of known neural and cognitive processes.
One useful model of creativity comes from musical improvisation, such as in jazz, in which musicians spontaneously create novel sound sequences. A study used jazz musicians to test the hypothesis that individuals with training in musical improvisation, which entails creative generation of musical ideas, might process expectancy differently.
Researchers used EEGs to compare the brain activity of 12 jazz musicians (with improvisation training), 12 classical musicians (without improvisation training), and 12 non-musicians while they listened to a series of chord progressions. Some of the examples followed typical Western chord progressions, while others followed atypical ones.
Jazz musicians had a significantly different electrophysiological response to the unexpected progressions, indicating that they had an increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events.
This according to “Jazz musicians reveal role of expectancy in human creativity” by Emily Przysinda, Tima Zheng, Kellyn Maves, Cameron Arkin, and Psyche Loui (Brain and cognition CXIX [December 2017] pp. 45–53).
Below, the Miles Davis Quintet plays Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti, a work often cited for its use of unexpected chords; above, Davis, Shorter, and Herbie Hancock in 1964.
With the emergence of jazz modernism, Miles Davis’s quintet was pushing popular standards to their limits when its 11 October 1964 performance at Milan’s Teatro dell’Arte was broadcast on Italian television.
The producers wanted us to experience the band’s internal dynamics; by tuning in to the show—by watching jazz as the live monitoring of events—we access both the band’s collective self-understanding and the continual reworking of that collective sense through the act of performance. In the group’s version of My funny valentine the television camera participates in and redefines our sense of the quintet’s performance, bringing us into a new relationship with issues of spontaneity, immediacy, and improvisation.
This according to “Screen the event: Watching Miles Davis’s My funny valentine” by Nicholas Gebhardt, an essay included in Watching jazz: Encounters with jazz performance on screen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 221–38).
Prince’s push-pull interactions with Miles Davis in his 1987 Sign o’ the times tour were emblematic of two interrelated tensions in his career.
One is the question of how wind and brass instruments fit into Prince’s music. His decision to give horns a central place in his 1980s and 1990s bands showed the same curious ambivalence as his relationship to Davis.
The second tension that Prince’s onstage interaction with Davis demonstrated is the issue of patriarchy. Prince spent the 1980s playing the part of the androgynous sexual imp, the 1990s found him engaging the exaggerated machismo of hip hop, and by the 2000s he was sporting natty suits, openly exploring jazz, and avoiding any discussion of queer identity.
These two spheres, the biographical and the musical—Prince’s fraught relationships with masculinity and with the musical styles of his father’s generation—all came together in the bell of Miles Davis’s trumpet. Prince used horns to act out two conflicts at the same time: They enacted the tension between the musical past and the present, and they served symbolically to resolve a conflict between two different versions of traditional masculinity—one violent and hypersexual, the other restrained and mature. Prince was ultimately using his horn section as a tool to leverage his own position in the black musical patriarchy.
We cannot understand the nature of music and its role in human life by conceiving of it as a thing; we must see it as an event in a context, replacing the noun music with the verb musicking.
The nature of musicking may then be addressed by asking whose ideal relationships are being celebrated, what the nature of those relationships is, and how they are represented in the performance.
This according to “Musicking: A ritual in social space” by Christopher Small, an essay included in Aflame with music: 100 years of music at the University of Melbourne (Melbourne: Centre for Studies in Australian Music, 1996 pp. 521–533).
Below, an example of musicking that involves minimal precomposition.
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