Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Emotional and the Analytical

Blog # 37: The Emotional and The Analytical

The best thing about jazz has always been its duality. Good jazz has the ability to engage your mind and emotionally affect your heart. You can listen to a John Coltrane solo and observe his incredible facility, dexterity and articulation OR simply marvel at the beauty in his tone and its emotional impact on you the listener. This duality is one thing that separates it from many other forms of music.

Unfortunately for most of us, school and learning to play is a largely analytical process.

"What scale to I play on a C7#11?"

"What Chords does my diminish pattern work on?"

The current Jazz musician spends so much time working on flawless technique, tone and harmony that he often forgets about that second important part; The emotional. I think the reason its so neglected is that the Analytical side is much easier to teach(and to figure out), because it is the instruction of facts. which scale goes on what chord. The message is: learn this charlie parker solo and Ta-da! Now you can play jazz. Unfortunately, this just isn't true, and it leaves much jazz music cold, sterile and lacking the ability to pull in listeners.

The jazz educational system has neglected 'The Emotional', most likely because it is extremely difficult to teach and each musician needs to sit down and think about what they are trying to convey in a particular song or solo. When I was studying my Undergrad at Muhlenberg I had the pleasure of working with a great bass player and teacher named Charles Fambrough. He went right at the emotional component; I remember working on a certain funk based song and Fambrough telling us to "Play the song like it was a big fat lady crammed in a little dress with her ass hangin' out the back and steaks hanging from her ears instead of ear-rings.'" With this kind of mental image, we brought a lot more character to the song(even though we lacked the 'Analytical side' and had limited knowledge of chords and harmony at the time).

I think here lies the problem. As musicians we need to be able to constantly shift back and forth between these two functions(or maybe even learn to do them simultaneously). I remember playing a song on my stereo for a friend a few weeks ago and he kept saying, "That's a cool use of 3 against 4 in 5/4 time" and "So its two bars of 3 and a bar of 4". After a while I yelled at him, "Stop thinking so much and just enjoy the music!"

At this point in my life I want to be able to turn that 'Analytical side' off and on. The Analytical side has a great place in rehearsal and practice; figuring out the chords, form, things in your own playing you need to improve on, but I think we need to practice the 'Emotional' too. Think about what the tune means and what the feeling is behind the song. And the performance, ideally, is where 'The Emotional' meets 'The Analytical'.

Lastly I will say this: if I'm in the audience, I don't want to think about meters or chords, I just want to enjoy the music.


  1. Thanks a lot for your post, it was very gratifying to read. I have often felt guilty that I listen and enjoy music that I have almost no technical knowledge of the "nuts and bolts" of the music. It's good to know that it's OK to just feel the emotion of the music and the passion of the musicians and allow them to tell the story.

  2. Hi Tim,

    I think even we musicians have to remember that all the schooling, all the knowledge of harmony and rhythm, only means so much. I think Ideally, when we're creating music, we are thinking purely in sound, not "Its going to sound totally hip when I play that flat 9 on this B flat chord". At the end of the day the final question is always: "Does it sound good?" and "Does it move you?".

    I think Bill Evans said it best:

    "I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a Universal Musical Mind. Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people. [..] I do not agree that the layman's opinion is less of a valid judgement of the music than that of a professional musician. In fact, I would often rely more on the opinion of a sensitive layman than that of a professional, since the professional, because his constant involvement with the mechanics of music must fight to preserve the naivete that the layman already possesses."