Thoughts on Jazz and Healing


The Greek lyrical poet Archilochus said, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” This quote suggests that the ability to succeed is not based on chance, nor can someone expect to succeed based solely on his or her innate abilities. Success instead is the result of training in a focused manner, so that when faced with a critical situation, a reaction occurs without conscious thought—essentially, it has become an instinctual response born of dedicated practice.

The saying can also be interpreted in a broader fashion, reflecting one’s ability to change and to “push the envelope,” as great jazz musicians do. Basketball, my favorite sport, shares some similarities in approach. The combination of talent and training, with some scripted aspects of play and the freedom for spontaneous improvisation is the ultimate in team synergy. When played in this way, basketball is beautiful. The unscripted nature of the game is similar to the improvisational nature of jazz, in which the notes are often unknown in advance, and rely on the combination of thought (intelligence) and feeling response (heart).

Jazz musicians practice for thousands of hours honing their craft, but when they improvise it is the dance
between the heart and the mind that creates the magic. A strong foundation is essential, and that is built by mental skills sharpened by diligent practice. It is only then that the heart (feeling) aspect can be given free rein, accessing the practiced knowledge of the mind while allowing for the emergence of brilliant, innovative approaches.

In my passions for jazz and for healing, I practice daily to hone my skills, and I continually push the envelope of possibilities to gather clues and come up with creative approaches to keep people healthy and well.

What I have found is that the more music I play, compose, and listen to, the better I get at medicine.  Just as I study medicine and science for hours each day, I try to do the same with music. Interestingly, over the past decade an abundance of studies have found cognitive and overall health benefits for all who study and play music, from toddlers to retirees.

“One of the things I like about Jazz, kid, is I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?” Bix Beiderbecke

In jazz there is some predictability and familiarity, but also the quest of the “unknown.”  I find strong parallels between jazz and a complex medical model such as the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System (ETMS). Learning jazz may be the ultimate in training minds to think both critically and creatively.

Studying, listening, and playing jazz has trained my brain in a unique way that includes hand-eye coordination, the ability to listen inwardly and outwardly, the skills of memorization, discipline, patience, critical and creative thinking, and the high-speed intellectual engagement that involves the convergence of my ideas and feelings with the ideas and feelings of others.

What does jazz music have in common with the ETMS?

  • the primacy of improvisation, within a frame-work, which demands creativity
  • the ability to retain large amounts of information from various sources
  • the melody
  • the complexity of the harmonic theory
  • the flexibility of rhythm
  • the variety of formats (duet, trio, small group, medium group, orchestra)

Creating jazz music requires the interplay of abilities, just as the ETMS does, which are reflected in unique development within the brain. Scientists have discovered that the brain activity of jazz musicians differs from those of classical musicians, even when playing the same piece of music.

Creative thinking is central to the arts, music, sciences, and everyday life. How exactly, though, does the brain produce creative thought? A series of recently published papers has begun to provide insight into this question, reporting a strikingly similar pattern of brain activity and connectivity across a range of creative tasks and domains, from divergent thinking to poetry composition to musical improvisation. 1

Many research scientists now 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.2

Jazz musicians differ from classical musicians, just as holistic traditional practitioners differ from mainstream allopathic physicians. For example, a recent scientific study found that jazz pianists revised incongruent harmonies more quickly while classical pianists experienced more conflict during incongruent harmony.

Jazz musicians are more frequently engaged in extracurricular musical activities, and also complete a higher number of creative musical achievements. Additionally, jazz musicians show higher ideational creativity as measured by divergent thinking tasks, and tend to be more open to new experiences than classical musicians.

Jazz musicians show particularly high creativity with respect to specific musical accomplishments but also in terms of general indicators of divergent thinking ability that may be relevant for musical improvisation.3 I find this to be true for medicine and healing, as well.

What this means is that classical pianists focus on playing pieces perfectly according to the written music. Jazz pianists, on the other hand, improvise and adapt their playing to create unexpected harmonies and melodies, and free themselves from the obsession of the perfection of the written notations.4

One approach is not necessarily superior; I am merely noting the differences. I firmly believe to be a good jazz musician, one must practice, be skillful, and be attuned to the composition. But I also believe the classical musician needs to find self-expression with the limitations of the written music to make the music come alive. Concepts from both classical and jazz music can be found within the ETMS, but it is clearly built upon a jazz paradigm.

Within the ETMS the concepts of jazz bring a vitality and freshness to integrative medicine. I see the ETMS as a poetic vitalistic traditional medicinal system (such as traditional Chinese medicine), harmonizing with more heroic modern scientific medicine.

The challenge is to integrate the artistic, adaptable, multi-faceted system of an approach such as the ETMS with the single-minded, narrow approach of the current medical paradigm. In my opinion, this remains the most significant obstacle in the medical dialogue, and can only happen when the scientific community becomes more open and more creative—essentially, integrating the principles of the art of jazz into the art of medicine and healing.5

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Albert Einstein


  • Przysinda EZeng T1Maves KArkin CLoui P. Jazz musicians reveal role of expectancy in human creativity, Brain Cogn.2017 Dec;119:45-53. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2017.09.008. Epub 2017 Oct 11.
  • Benedek M, Borovnjak B, Neubauer AC, Kruse-Weber S.Pers Creativity and personality in classical, jazz and folk musicians. Individ Dif. 2014 Jun; 63(100):117-121.
  • Bianco, R. Novembre, G., Keller, P.E. Villringer, A. Sammler., Musical genre-dependent behavioural and EEG signatures of action planning. A comparison between classical and jazz pianists. NeuroImage, 2018; 169: 383 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.12.058
  • Beaty RE, Benedek M, Silvia PJ, Schacter DL. Creative Cognition and Brain Network Dynamics. Trends Cogn Sci. 2016 Feb;20(2):87-95. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2015.10.004. Epub 2015 Nov 6. Review.
  • Johnson DR. Playing off the beat: Applying the jazzparadigm to psychotherapy. J Clin Psychol. 2018 Feb;74(2):249-260. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22579. Epub 2018 Jan 10.
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2 Replies to “Thoughts on Jazz and Healing”

  1. I am an avid Jazz fan, and your patient for 10 years. Thank you for everything you. It makes sense and has kept me alive. I go out to listen to jazz a few times a month.

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