17 April 2011

Jazz and Neurology

The most fascinating thing I've read about music lately was not written by a critic or a musician, but an economist.1 Tyler Cowen's The Age of the Infovore is a broad examination of the information economy, and he makes some suggestions about the way people experience and think about culture. It makes for a thoroughly thought-provoking read, not least of which because he shoots down the annoyingly glib "Is Google making us stupid?" thesis with relative ease.

Most pertinent to this discussion is Cowen's chapter titled "Beauty Isn't What You Think it Is," wherein he argues that neurology plays a far greater role in musical taste than you may think. The internal wiring of individual brains, more than cultural backgrounds and aesthetics, determines whether people can connect emotionally and intellectually with a certain piece of music. To prove the point, he discusses atonal classical music, which sounds like noise to many people.

An assumption undergirding his argument is that "part of the joy in atonal music and related forms is discovering the order and in the meantime enjoying the surprise of what is to come next." While this implies a "mechanical" relationship with art, Cowen argues that emotion and structure are actually "quite connected." Pop music bores some people because it is too easy to figure out, and no amount of emotional content can make up for that (Cowen likens it to "doing a crossword puzzle we have already solved").

If listening to and appreciating music is about finding order (in addition to tapping into the music's emotional core), then those that listen to seemingly disordered music must be especially adept at finding order. It is here where he expands his discussion to include people on the autism spectrum, who excel at finding order and are overrepresented in the population of atonal composers.2 At one point he goes so far as to write, "it could be said that non-autistics have systematic cognitive deficit when it comes to music."

What does this have to do with jazz? Cowen does not mention jazz in this case, but surely it crossed his mind while writing (he is, after all, someone who once called Sun Ra "a musical god of sorts for me"). It is relatively easy to extrapolate his argument into the jazz world, where audiences are small and neophytes often struggle to grasp the emotional content and structure of the music. That struggle itself is why there is a smaller audience for modern jazz (relative to most other "popular" musical genres): it is (purposefully or not) geared at "pleasing people with unusual neurologies." Thus, "The aesthetic lushness of the world will be increasingly distributed into baroque nooks and crannies," to borrow a phrase from Cowen.

This is not to say that the brains of jazz listeners are wired wrong (or that jazz cannot appeal to more than a handful of minds). But when we wonder why jazz always struggles to get noticed into the mainstream, we would be wise to remember Cowen's argument, coupled with Scott DeVeaux's observation about the development of bebop in The Birth of Bebop. When the beboppers realized there was a market for more challenging jazz that may not attract dancers, but still fill nightclubs, they seized on this new art market and propagated a music which, while it may not gain an audience as large as swing did, it was enough to make a living and fulfill their own artistic desires.

Combining Cowen's demand-side analysis with DeVeaux's supply-side history of bebop, it becomes clear that jazz has a small audience because of a break from pop music (not always enforced, as the history of the music shows) made over half a century ago. Since then, the trend has mostly reinforced itself. I'm willing to bet a majority of jazz listeners played music as children, and a majority of those played jazz in school bands, creating an early habit of listening to more challenging music (and probably overrepresenting a group of neurological outliers). Jazz self-selects from a smallish segment of society: musicians (or former musicians) who can see order in music where others do not.

This does not mean that jazz will never become popular again, or that the music is worse off (the musicians may be a little worse of financially, but that is another topic altogether). But it does make it seem like the odds are stacked against a popular renaissance of jazz.

1The second most fascinating thing I've read about music lately was Ethan Iverson's blog post on Stravinsky's rhythm.
2Cowen also argues early in the book that people on the autism spectrum should not necessarily be viewed as disabled. Indeed an autistic mind is particularly well-suited to the information age, for a number of reasons. He goes to great lengths to correct any misconceptions or gaps in knowledge about autism that the reader may have, and as a result he does make you reconsider autism.

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