Home » Jazz Articles » Jazz Cosmos: Music and Modern Physics

What is Jazz?

Jazz Cosmos: Music and Modern Physics

Jazz Cosmos: Music and Modern Physics

Sign in to view read count
To the memory of Leonard Bernstein, the greatest musical educator of all time, a great conductor and composer who loved jazz and whose televised lectures brought a whole generation of listeners into insightful contact with the music.

Maybe you remember how astrophysicist Carl Sagan's vision of "billions and billions of stars" captured the awesome feeling of seeing the firmament of the heavens, marveling at its beauty and contemplating the incredible universe. Well, strange as it may seem, many of us get a similar feeling of cosmic wonder when we hear a truly great jazz performance. Sun Ra's "intergalactic" ideas about jazz may not be so far-fetched after all. Indeed, striking parallels can be drawn between jazz as a form of musical expression and the universe as understood by modern physics and cosmology.

It's no accident that contemporary jazz musicians themselves have been thinking along these lines. Fred Hersch's album, Night and the Music (Palmetto, 2007) includes tunes such as "Galaxies Fragment" and "Gravity's Pull." At another level, Pat Martino's theory of guitar substitutions derives from his own theory of how the universe all comes together like the numbers on a clock. And his diagrams look like those from a physics or math textbook.

Whether it is the Zen-like rapidity and precision of Martino's articulations on the guitar, the improvisational range of Art Tatum's quick-thinking variations on a single theme, the excursions of Cecil Taylor into new pianistic possibilities, or the subtle dimensions of Miles Davis playing "My Funny Valentine," great jazz performances convey something of the beauty and complexity of the universe as it is perceived by us creatures who are able to see, hear, and investigate the world around us, from the smallest subatomic particles to the "billions" of galaxies and nebulae that inhabit the infinite cosmos that exploded from nothing in a flash of time billions of years ago. Music itself is part of that universe, the conscious human part. And jazz is the growing tip of that music, so in some sense it is at the growing edge of the universe. As far back as antiquity, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras spoke about "the music of the spheres." (Curiously, Thelonious Monk's middle name was "Sphere," And he had an occasional ritual of spinning around like a planet on its axis.) Music, mathematics, and the universe have been connected with one another since ancient times.

Furthermore, the development of jazz parallels the expansion of the universe. Jazz exploded from the "big bang" of a few musicians performing on the streets, brothels, and bars of New Orleans to what is now a multi-faceted genre of art and entertainment that is global, incorporates many motifs and cultures, and has detonated into limitless styles and variations of themes, scales, sounds, instrumentations, emotions, and personal statements with no end in sight. Jazz contains billions and billions of instrumental and vocal moments in a sonic universe that touches our individual and collective consciousness in many ways.

Relativity, Quantum Leaps, and String Theory—How Jazz Mirrors the Universe of Modern Physics

Historically, the structure and function of jazz parallels the evolution of modern physics. The development of musical understanding and the study of the universe have echoed, if not crossed paths, with one another. How do these developments play out? Before exploring some commonalities between jazz and physics, it must be said that physics does not explain jazz or vice-versa. To some extent, acoustics and neuroscience may account for some elements of what we hear and experience as listeners. But jazz is a spontaneous human creation, and the same can be said of science. The feature they share in common is consciousness. Jazz and modern physics came about in the same epoch of history, and the consciousness of that era is manifest in jazz, physics, and a host of other endeavors. Thus, jazz and modern physics are marked by a common sensibility and awareness that emerged around the turn of the twentieth century and has continued to evolve since then.

To grasp some of the parallels between jazz and physics, we have to go back to Isaac Newton, whose three laws of motion once appeared to hold the entire universe in its sway. Jazz has its own "laws of motion" (sometimes called "swing"), and, like modern physicists, they challenge any ideas Newton might have had when the proverbial apple fell upon his head.

From Newton to Einstein

Modern twentieth century physics resulted from inconsistencies in astronomical and subatomic observations (measurements of the largest and smallest) that contradicted Newton's laws of motion. Newton's laws assumed a fixed frame of reference for all observations, a frame which consisted of an invisible substance in space which astronomers called the "ether." Newton's laws, based on the idea of the ether as a fixed frame of reference for all motion, predicted that a change in the speed of light would occur when measured by an observer in motion relative to the ether, like an airplane whose speed is affected by the jet stream. The Michaelson-Morely experiment of 1887, two hundred years after Newton, showed that this was not the case. In their ingenious experiment, it turned out to everyone's surprise that the speed of light was the same regardless of how the light was moving relative to the earth's motion. Newton's laws could not account for this finding. The constancy of the speed of light (relative to any motion of the observer) provided the foundation of Einstein's theory of relativity, which changed the face of physics.

Newton's classical physics was a product of the 17th-18th Century European Enlightenment. (In fact, when critics and scholars refer to "Eurocentric" thought and music, they are really referring to the ideas that congealed during the Enlightenment, when the world was seen as an orderly, permanent creation of a male Caucasian omnipotent God.) Newton's universe was like a God-driven clock where particles of matter moved around like machines. Time and space were believed to be fixed and unchangeable. Motion was totally predictable and accounted for, with no ambiguity, chaos, or shifts of perspective. The universe moved in an orderly course that was immutable and unchangeable, like the grandfather clock that ticked away into the night.

With relativity theory and quantum mechanics, that vision of reality changed forever. In 1905, around the same time that jazz was born, Albert Einstein, a young scientist (who happened to play the violin quite well, and not unlike many young musicians was unrecognized and struggling to earn a living), published his first paper on "special relativity," defying two centuries of Newton's physics by contending, among other things, that time and movement were not fixed like the ether but depended on the observer, He also theorized that energy and matter could be converted into one another (eventually leading to atomic energy). In 1915, when ragtime was in vogue and Louis Armstrong first picked up the trumpet, Einstein went further and held that space was not what it appeared to be, that it could be bent and curved by gravity. Thus, time, space, matter, and energy, instead of being fixed and permanent, could to some degree be "played with" by man and nature, just as jazz musicians improvise around melodies, harmonies, and scales.

Newton/Bach and Einstein/Armstrong: Strange Coincidences

To make a key point (no pun intended) about the connection between music and physics, we have to go back to the development of the piano, which was then called the "fortepiano" because, unlike its predecessor, the harpsichord, it could make both loud and soft sounds. The piano was intended to be a perfect musical machine, the equivalent of the Newtonian clock. To make that happen, Bach and his cohorts developed what we would now think of as the "software," the tuning of the strings that would allow all the key signatures of the chromatic scale to be played with equal value. It was the "well-tempered" scale that you hear very clearly when, say, a jazz pianist like Kenny Barron goes up a step or two and plays the melody in a different key. Bach and Newton were roughly contemporaries. The well-tempered chromatic scale, with its fixed, immutable tuning was the musical equivalent of the unchangeable quantities of Newton's Laws. As Newtonian physics depicted a consistent theory of all the phenomena in the universe, the well-tempered scale could accommodate all forms, scales, and key signatures of (Western classical) music, that is, until jazz came along around the same time as Einstein.

Another musical quantity that was as steady of the ticking of a clock was the "beat." In the baroque music of Bach's time, each beat, like clockwork, was equal in emphasis and duration. From the downbeat to the last note, the music ticked off without change. To the modern listener, that way of playing seems a bit stiff, so today's performers of Bach may alter the pace, but not so in his era). A performance in Bach's time had clockwork accuracy, and very beat had equal value.

In a similar vein of constancy and precision, the pitches of the notes were standard for anyone who used the same tuning fork. In addition, the sonorities of the instruments and voices all strove for the same ideal. All good violinists, for example, sounded pretty much alike. (Compare that with the very different sound timbre, for example, of Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor saxophone.) So, like Newton's unchangeable laws, musical pitch, tempo, and sound were constants. Composers like Bach used them in highly creative ways, but were restricted to a limited and specific sonic vocabulary.

With minor adjustments, such as glissandos and shifts of tempo, that state of affairs lasted for three centuries, and is still the gold standard of most classical performances. However, at the same time that Einstein changed the face of physics, jazz changed the complexion of Western music. Like relativity theory, jazz capitalized on the fact that time, space, and sound (the equivalent of matter/energy) could be altered and "bent" to suit taste, purpose, and expression. Jazz allowed composers and players to alter rhythm, pitch, and sound in ways that still make some classical musicians bristle. What they don't realize is that outside of the classical European repertoire which they were taught, musicians have always used every means at their disposal to achieve self-expression. Folk music, Indian raja, African drum rhythms, and many other musical forms and genres use diverse scales, sounds, syncopations, and inflections that are outside the Western classical mold. Music, broadly defined, is the use of sound (and silence, as John Cage argued) by whatever means possible to achieve an effect. Jazz is in good company when it uses swing rhythms, "blue" notes, plunger mutes, growls, squeaks, and whatever else it wants when the mood or meaning calls for it. Western classical music occupies only a very narrow window within the scope of world music.

Specifically, the jazz rhythm in which the off-beat is held back and understated is a metaphorical parallel to Einstein's (now proven) theory that time slows down as an observer approaches the speed of light. Someone once made a very bad joke, saying that Frank Sinatra's ending of "Strangers in the Night" was like a Buddhist or existentialist mantra: "DO-BE-DO-BE-DO-BE-DO-BE-DO. (My apologies!) The jazz rhythm does in fact express the alternation between doing and being, action and pause, tension and realease. With jazz, time slows down and speeds up between the downbeat and upbeat. Count Basie defined jazz as music that makes you tap your feet. The reason you tap your feet is that for a split second time slows down just before the off-beat, and the tension is experienced as exciting and driving. You are on a space ship moving close to the speed of light, where Einstein's theory would predict you would be younger than if you stayed on earth that whole time. When you "return to earth" after a swinging jazz set, you feel younger, just as you would be if you were on that hypothetical spacecraft.

Einstein also held that space is not rigid but flexible. He predicted that a ray of light would bend around a massive object like the sun that has a strong gravitational pull. Physicists and astronomers were astounded when an eclipse of the sun allowed them to measure the curvature of the light coming from a distant star when it entered the sun's gravity. Einstein correctly inferred that space itself curves around a gravitational force.

The jazz equivalent of the curvature of space is the "blue" note, a note that bends down below its usual pitch, and gives a sense of sadness or gravity to the melody. The Blue Note (the tone, not the record label or nightclub!) defined jazz melody and harmony from the very beginning. Modern jazz, however, has gone well beyond the blue note to include all varieties of shifts in the notes and chords used for improvisation. Contemporary jazz musicians bend and transform the notes all the time. Bebop players added distant overtones that didn't belong with the chords at all, but "sounded good." Modern innovators like Dave Liebman add all kinds of harmonics and dissonances that no one ever "heard" before! And Rudresh Mahanthappa has added notes that occur only in East Indian scales. Jazz has bent the well-tempered scale forever, just as Einstein bent physical space by applying a new mathematics (Riemannian geometry) to the universe.

Finally, Einstein's famous formula, E=mc2 in which energy and matter become interchangeable, is mirrored in the changes in sonority permitted by jazz. Sound is the matter or substance of music. It's what you hear, the presence, the object of musical expression, just as what you see is matter (you can't "see" energy; only the motion of matter). The jazz player constricts or, conversely, expands the sound of matter, his instrument, to achieve an effect. In so doing, he converts the sound "matter" into the "energy" of change. Sometimes he uses devices like a plunger mute, or growls and cat-calls, to achieve a more extreme effect. The physical energy emitted by the instrument actually changes: scientists call this the "waveform," the physical counterpart of a sound.

The special gentleman who brought such changes into the new music was the great Louis Armstrong. Satchmo was so entertaining that it is easy to overlook the fact that he was, like Einstein, a genius. He overwrote three centuries of Western music and, using what he heard in his hometown of New Orleans, he created a new musical form that included syncopation, blue notes, growls and many other innovations in the musical vocabulary. He did it so well and consistently that jazz innovators such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and Ornette Coleman bowed down to him as the master even as they went beyond him. (It is perhaps no accident that Armstrong and Einstein both had a cosmic sense of humor! They could laugh at the irony of their accomplishments. Both were members of minority ethnic groups who were shunned and belittled by prejudiced men of small minds. They had to laugh to keep their sanity and their perspective on their radical discoveries. In physics and jazz, David, the underdog twice again slew the giant Goliath.)

The revolution in physics that began at the turn of the twentieth century and continues to this day was propelled by two radical theories: relativity and quantum mechanics. Relativity changed the understanding of time and space, matter and energy. Quantum mechanics shattered prevalent ideas about waves and particles and about the micro-world of atomic and subatomic particles. Even the most recent developments such as the big bang and so-called string theory are outgrowths of relativity and quantum theory. Just as it reflects relativity theory, jazz also has several parallels to quantum physics.

God is a Jazz Musician

Quantum physics emerged when it became evident that, like the capricious Greek gods who could at will assume human or spirit form, light could behave as either a wave or a particle. Until then, some scientists believed that light consisted of tiny particles like miniature "golf balls" scattered into space, so that light could be deflected by a lens, or blocked by an opaque object, like a golf ball that moves away from the hole at the last second or gets caught in a sand trap. Others thought that light is like an ocean wave, that spreads out, moves around some objects like a boat, and changes when it encounters waves from another place. Again, Einstein was the spoiler. His discovery of the "photoelectric" effect (the only finding for which he ever won a Nobel Prize, despite the his other earth-shattering theories) showed how light behaved like a particle when its energy was converted to electricity (the basis of the vacuum tube of those old power amplifiers), but like a wave when it went through narrow slits and formed interference patterns like waves that collide. In addition, what was eventually concluded was that light (and other electromagnetic frequencies such as radio waves and X-rays) carries energy in discrete packets or "quanta" called "photons" which cannot be further divided. Quanta have properties of both matter and energy, particles and waves. In this way, and from other findings and theories, quantum physics was born. Many modern devices such transistors and lasers capitalize on quantum physics. More importantly for physicists, we live in a quantum universe in which the smallest, most fundamental units exhibit quantum paradoxes. Our world rests on a foundation of contradiction and caprice that yet somehow is orderly in ways we don't fully comprehend.

Skeptics may say that comparing jazz to something as abstruse and difficult to understand as quantum physics (the great physicist Richard Feynman said that nobody understands it!) is sheer nonsense. But there are various ways in which the universe of jazz behaves like both waves and particles, showing quantum paradoxes that the best musicians are very gifted at producing. The most obvious example is John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" in which he combined quantum leaps from one remote chord to another (particles) with continuous chord progressions (waves). Coltrane's finesse was so difficult to figure out that it took a brilliant critic like Lewis Porter to explain how he did it. More generally, jazz frequently makes use of paradoxical insertion of notes, harmonies, and rhythms that clash against one another and yet come together to produce new experiences and effects. Thelonious Monk, with his angular rhythms and chord clusters did this frequently. He would break up the time signature and the chord progressions in disturbing ways (particles) and yet the overall impact would reflect the original intention of the melody (waves). Like electromagnetic waves and the Greek gods, Monk could assume two (or more!) forms in the same improvisation. Similarly, some drummers like Elvin Jones, Joe Morello, and, more recently, Adam Cruz have been capable of playing two or more unrelated rhythms simultaneously. Some of these juxtapositions of paradoxical opposites can be traced both to African rhythms as well as to the classical American composer Charles Ives, who incorporated musical impressions of street bands, nature, and conversations simultaneously as if one were standing on a street corner. Jazz at its most amazing happens when players, or else the right and left hands of the pianist or drummer, take totally different tacks from one another yet make it all come together well. Particles become waves and waves become particles. Paradox rules. Opposites attract and become one.

The Uncertainty Principle and Jazz Improvisation: You Don't Know What's Going to Happen Until it Happens!

There is another way in which jazz and quantum theory are almost identical. Quantum theory says that you can't predict the position and speed of a very small particle like an electron until it happens. At the smallest magnitudes such as subatomic levels, the measuring instrument affects the outcome, so when you observe the particle, you influence it in unpredictable ways. An electron is nearly as small as the quanta of electromagnetic waves that are used to observe where it is and how fast it is moving. So when the waves hit the electron, they change its position and speed. You can't separate the observer and observed. The result is that you don't know the outcome of the event until you measure it, not before. This ambiguity of result came to be called the "uncertainty principle." Until you actually measure it, the "particle" is more like a "cloud" of possibilities. This is exactly like jazz improvisation. While composed music is determined in advance, improvised music is defined at the moment of conception. The musician himself doesn't know how it will turn out, and the players themselves sometimes express surprise at what they have just improvised. No two improvisations are ever the same, although they sometimes "quote" one another.

Thus, both jazz and the subatomic world of quantum theory are born in the moment of performance, in the here-and-now. Just as subatomic events are serendipitously affected by the means of observation and other forces, jazz performances are influenced by the audience, the mood of the players, even the temperature of the room. (There was a recording session where the room was so cold that a string of the upright bass snapped, and the bassist had to improvise with three strings, which totally changed his approach!) Jazz and subatomic occurrences are spontaneous here-and-now creations.

On a much larger scale, The Big Bang theory says that the universe itself was such a spontaneous eruption. A slight change in conditions would have created an entirely different universe than the one we are familiar with. Some cosmologists go even further to say that the universe we see is partly the result of our being here to observe it! And some are suggesting that there are other universes we can't ever know because we're not there! It's like going to a jazz performance knowing it is a completely unique event, and, moreover, that your perception of it will be somewhat different from everyone else. The experience of jazz is a unique one time only "universe" that occurs between the musicians and the listener. Jazz is by far the most intimate of musical moments. When you listen to jazz, you feel "up close and personal" with the musicians, not as if you are watching them from a distance. The music actually affects your body as if it is inside you. There is no separation between the observer and the observed. You are attending a singular once-only event, and your perception of it is unique. Cosmologists and physicists tell us that the same may be true of the entire universe!

Jazz "Telepathy" and "Non-locality" in Physics

When a jazz group is in a tight groove, or, as they say, "in the zone," the musicians seem to have mental telepathy, as if they all have the same idea at the same time. There are several tracks in the J.J. Johnson/ Stan Getz recording At the Opera House (Verve, 1957) where the two great players—whose usual styles were different from one other—were in such a groove that they improvised counterpoints as if they were written by one composer, as if they could anticipate exactly what the other was going to do and synch their playing perfectly with each other. Musicians in the Count Basie band could co-improvise riffs that sounded like a single instrument. It's as if they were reading each others' minds! (Of course, there are other explanations for it: they already knew the chords; one note automatically followed on another; etc. However, the overall effect can be as uncanny as telepathic communication. Neuroscientists have done some studies showing that jazz affects specific brain waves and brain activity. So what one musician is playing could change the brain activities of the others in the band so that their brains are in synch with one another.)

Newton's laws of motion, the past gold standard of physics, does not allow for objects (in this case musicians' minds) to influence one another at a long distance. Particles must collide to affect one another. The exceptions are gravity and magnetic fields, where the "pull" occurs at a distance. But these are explained by assuming a "field" around them that exercises a force. The musical parallel to this is the symphony orchestra, in which the conductor acts as the "force field" that coordinates the playing. Contemporary quantum physics, however, has demonstrated situations called "non-locality" or "entanglement" where particles and systems of particles can influence each other at long—very long—distances. In certain cases, if a collision splits a subatomic particle apart, and the two halves travel in opposite directions a long way from one another, the physicist can cause a change in one of them, and the same change will take place in the other. Physicists call this occurrence "non-locality." It's as if the one sub-particle can "mind read" the other, just as the Basie band members could improvise the same riff at the same time. (Of course, physicists do not attribute "minds" to particles, but psychologist Carl Jung did believe that there was a physical effect that one mind could have on another mind half-way around the world. He called this phenomenon "synchronicity," and the Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli believed that mental synchronicity could possibly be explained by quantum science.

It's happened more than once that jazz musicians in different geographical areas created the same innovations at the same time with little of no contact with each other. One of the most notable examples was between West Coast and East Coast jazz in the 1950s. When players from the two coasts came together to make the groundbreaking album, The Birth of the Cool (Capitol Records, 1957), they had very little previous contact with one another. Yet they had independently developed the same ideas and concepts. Of course, they had points of contact in recordings, they knew musicians who played on both coasts, and they had a common earlier tenure in the swing bands. Nevertheless, they worked on similar musical ideas at the same time at opposite ends of the country, comparable to non-locality in physics.

Tying It All Together: String Theory

The capstone on this cross-comparison of jazz and modern physics is a relatively recent point of view that seeks to integrate various findings and explanations from relativity theory and quantum physics into a unified "theory of everything," including the smallest and largest aspects of matter and energy, the origin of the universe, the "whole deal." Guitar and bass players will revel in the fact that this new theory is called "string theory!" This theory completely rejects Newton's idea of the universe as particles in collision. Instead of thinking of the smallest most fundamental units as particles, it says that the smallest units of the world are vibrating strings! These "strings" (of course, here we are talking about very complicated mathematical equations that are not quite like guitar strings) resonate in many more dimensions than the 3D world we live in, and some physicists even think the "strings" generate multiple universes each time they vibrate. In string theory, the entire cosmos could be compared to an infinite number of jazz ensembles making a kind of cosmic noise and music, as if the cosmos tuned into many radio stations at the same time. Ornette Coleman's free jazz "harmolodics" and John Coltrane's seemingly chaotic Meditations (Impulse! 1966) have striking parallels to contemporary string theory in physics, a theory which is still unproven but shaking up the world of the physics quite a bit by its intriguing possibilities.

The point of this discussion of the relationship between jazz and modern physics is that music reflects the underlying structure of the universe we live in, as we understand it during a particular time in our history. Modern physics shows how awesome, complex, and surprising the world can be, and jazz musically portrays the firmament in ways that we can grasp not only with our minds, but with our bodies and our emotions—our hearts. The best jazz musicians are always reaching for this level of expression. When we listen to them play, we should give them the respect such a striving deserves. If the Grammy Awards for jazz had the same criteria as the Nobel Prize in physics, the choices might be very different.

Notes: Thanks to Jim Miller, drummer and CEO of Dreambox Media, for his helpful ideas and comments.

The author would like to know if readers would like to see other articles relating jazz to ideas from science, psychology, philosophy, and similar subjects. Please give your feedback in the "Comments" section below. Thank you.

Photo Credit
John Kelman

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a champion of jazz since 1995, supporting it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to rigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.

Post a comment




Read Ramsey Lewis: Life is Good
Read Meet Abe Goldstien
Out and About: The Super Fans
Meet Abe Goldstien
Read Herbie Hancock: An Essential Top Ten Albums
Read Matthew Shipp: A Dozen Essential Albums
Read Lew Tabackin: On Becoming and Barolo
Read Bill Charlap's Stardust

Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and includes upcoming jazz events near you.