Do You Have A "Jazz" Mindset or A "Classical" Mindset?

There’s a reason jazz wasn’t taught at the New England Conservatory before Gunther Schuller arrived in the 1960s. Artists are protective of their work, and classical musicians are no exception; many faculty members at the renowned Boston institution didn’t want the whims of jazz improvisers to “sully” their canon. The traditionalists there believed in an unambiguous divide between the realms of classical and jazz—both for themselves, and for posterity. 

But Gunther Schuller, who passed away on June 21 of this year, wasn’t having it.

As president of the New England Conservatory for a decade, Schuller wanted audiences and student performers to experience the best of both worlds—so he brought jazz into the curriculum. As a composer, he coined the term “Third Stream,” used to describe a genre of music “about halfway between jazz and classical,” as Schuller put it. He was in many ways the paragon of a venerable creative figure: someone who teased apart labels and combined ideas.

But Schuller’s professional output is a model for more than just combinatorial creativity. Classical music versus jazz, fixed versus free, planned versus improvised… we grapple with these dichotomies in non-musical work, as well. Is it true, as scientific studies suggest, that a jazz musician’s brain is inherently more creative? And thus does other free form art make one more creative? The answer is complicated—psychologists are finding that plasticity, as opposed to genre, may be a more powerful measure of creativity.

By way of comparison, the myth of the hyper-creative jazz musician bears some resemblance to the myth of the uber-artistic leftie. When it comes to handedness,creativity has more to do with degree rather than direction. That is, lefties aren’t always more creative than righties—the degree to which you use your left or right hand says more about your brain than the particular hand you’re using. Likewise, jazz musicians aren’t creative because they’re playing jazz as opposed to any other style. Rather, creativity is the ability to mediate between genres and experiment with the full spectrum. Creativity is about ambidexterity.

So what can we learn about creativity from people like Gunther Schuller, who have unified the advantages of both classical and jazz? With real estate in two separate worlds, composers like Schuller show us what it means to dance between the following dichotomies.

Openness to Experience vs. Reliance on Experience

David Greenberg, Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Cambridge, says that a Gunther-style fusion of jazz and classical would likely appeal to someone who demonstrates what he calls “openness to experience.”

“Openness to experience isn’t about I.Q.,” he says. “It’s a different way of approaching the world.”

In a study published this month in the Journal of Research in Personality, Greenberg and his colleagues tested nearly 8,000 people in skill areas like melodic memory and rhythmic perception (you can take the quiz here). They found that out of five major personality traits, a characteristic called “openness” was the best predictor of musical sophistication and ability. What’s more, they were able to replicate that finding in non-musicians, too—which means you could be musical and not even know it....more