Jazz Improvisation 2: Music & Language

Picture this:  Your college professor is lecturing on the immutable qualities of light…a subject fascinating to some, and infinitely dreary to others.   Regardless, there you are at 8am on a Monday morning casting the favor of your attention towards the lectern.

Something has gone dreadfully wrong this morning, however.  This learned encapsulation of all you respect in education is spouting gibberish.  Well, not entirely. The phrases and some of the sentences seem largely intact, but the connections, oh Martha, the connections!  They make no sense.  In fact, many phrases appear to have come from different lectures entirely.  And the mode of delivery is all over the map.  The student body, smelling trouble, becomes increasingly restless and uneasy.  Where are the ambulance people?  Surely somebody has called them by now…

 “Sing the solo as you play”, is a good piece of advice for aspiring improvisers.  It solves a couple of common problems, the first of which is the tendency of the fingers to move faster than the brain. The second is the difficult issue of making the transition between stringing licks together and playing a real solo.

So what is it that makes a solo work, or, more accurately, what makes a solo sound connected and meaningful? The answer is simpler than you’d expect and it comes from exploring the “meaning” aspect of both language and music.  Here is a little ditty I wrote as part of a paper years ago:

“Composer and Conductor for the NY Phil., Leonard Bernstein, presented six Norton lectures that featured the relationship between language and music. The rapidly developing field of linguistics led by Chomsky and his disciples, provided lots of grist for the mill of comparison. The phonology -the basic sounds of language, may be roughly compared to the raw materials of music: the note and the motive. They exhibit very different characteristics, but they appear to provide similar functions. Syntax (assembly) and semantics (meaning), however, are connected in profound ways that far transcend simple comparison.

Since Bernstein’s 1973 lectures, huge developments in medical imaging have taken place that cast light on how the brain processes information.  It appears that, whereas the building blocks or phonology of language and music are stored in different areas of the brain, the syntax is actually processed in overlapping areas.  When musicians talk about phrasing, then, the connection with syntax in language is more than just shared terminology, it is a reflection of a process that takes place in what might be called “the center for assembling structures that are capable of conveying meaning”.

“Sing your solo” is no whimsical learning aid then; it goes right to the heart of the matter.  When you connect to language, you draw upon your ability to assemble fragments into meaningful strings.  Musical building blocks consisting of notes and motives (the phonemes and morphemes in language) can now be assembled (syntax) to create meaning (semantics) by tapping into a process you use day in and day out – a process you are extremely good at – communicating meaningfully with other human beings.”

More? See JAZZ IMPROVISATION: Sing For Your Supper