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Music of Evolution: Natural Selection and Jazz Improvisation

ajohnston's picture

           In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel C.Dennett uses the concept of an algorithm to shed light on Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. According to Dennett, evolutionary change as a result of random variation and differential reproductive success can be understood as a “formal process that can be counted on – logically – to yield a certain result whenever it is ‘run’ or instantiated.” (Dennett, 50). The three defining elements of an algorithm fulfill the : substrate neutrality, underlying mindlessness, and guaranteed results. Viewing seemingly complex biological phenomena through such a formulaic lens can be intriguing or frightening depending on one’s frame of mind. The miracle of life is derived from a mindless sequence of steps? Unbelievable! But Dennett is convinced of evolution as an algorithm, Darwin’s own “get-rich-slow scheme, a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind.” (Dennett, 50). A walk through Dennett’s argument reveals that algorithms can be seen as foundational processes to a wide variety of scenarios, from tennis tournaments to computer animation. With this in mind, one can trace algorithms everywhere, and if you dare to draw upon Dennett’s view of Natural Selection, it is possible to perceive the evolutionary aspects within many step-by-step schemes. One scenario in which an algorithmic process produces variation an evolution of form is jazz improvisation. The fundamental properties underlying this innovative practice exemplify how “Darwin’s ideas about the powers of natural selection can also be lifted out of their home base in biology.” (Dennett, 58). In this brief paper I will discuss the premise and appearance of improvisation as it relates to the premise and appearance of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

            Jazz music arose in the early 20th century on the waves of West African rhythms, songs of daily life on plantations, songs of celebration, and the blues coupled with marching band ensemble styles and ragtime. Given its origins, Jazz incorporates a wide variety of expression, from African American culture to French operas, and art and folk songs flowing in from Europe. The genre in itself can be seen as the product of generations of inherited mutations in the music scene – a lineage that flourished in New Orleans’ eclectic seaport community of the early 1900’s (Ostransky, 34). Central to Jazz music is the practice of improvisation – the spontaneous creation of a melody, usually performed as a “solo” played on top of the foundational rhythm and scale of a song. Improvisation is a free expression, exhibiting a musician’s style and emotive engagement with the music. As such, improvisation is a constant birthing of new forms, but it also draws upon the provisions of a musician’s background and the context of the song that holds the solo.

My own experience with jazz improvisation began in sixth grade. After two years of saxophone lessons and school band sessions, I was coaxed by my music teacher to try “soloing”. The thought of standing up and spontaneously producing a few noteworthy trills over the top of the basic chords played by the bass and braced by the drums was scary to say the least. When I listened to Miles Davis or Maceo Parker, or sat and watched the older students solo, I was captivated by their soulful and skillful sound, the way the improvisation emerged in the moment to complement and sculpt the music; I couldn’t imagine how one could begin to impulsively draw great music out from within, especially in the spotlight. Improvisation seemed mysterious and untraceable - without sheet music or teaching; a miraculous gift bestowed upon Jazz musicians of the upper ranks.

The notion of an untraceable, phenomenal form is a familiar theme in the history of evolutionary theory. Prior to Darwin, species were understood as fixed, timeless entities whose existence was best explained as the work of an omniscient creator. Dennett classifies such lofty explanations as cultural “skyhooks” – “wonderful things to have, great for lifting unwieldy objects out of difficult circumstances…miraculous lifters, unsupported and insupportable” (Dennett, 74-75). Skyhooks appear as tricks to define a complex process without conceiving of its structure. “Sad to say,” Dennett says, “they are impossible.” (74). Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection provided a “crane” in place of the “skyhooks” of creationist imaginations. The “crane” is the “brute, mechanical, algorithmic climbing, from the base already built by the efforts of earlier climbing.” (Dennett, 75). Given Darwin’s theory, it became possible to understand the presence of species as a product of an ongoing process of mutation, inheritance, and proliferation of adaptive variation rather than the act of an invisible divine hand.

While I initially struggled to understand improvisational solos without the aid of skyhook ideology, my music teacher provided a welcome shift in perspective when she introduced me to the basic foundation underlying the their structure. She provided a basic, fool-proof recipe: to conceive of an improvising for any given song, identify the notes of the scale (or scales) you will be soloing with, and pick three notes. Play these notes along with the rhythm of the song, every once in a while slightly diverge from the rhythm, and let your melody evolve from there. Given the selection of three notes from the scale, the sound of the solo is guaranteed to complement the chords of the song. An initial leaning on the rhythm provides a backbone for the soloist to then settle into the flow of the song and slowly, soulfully engage individual expression as informed by the music of the moment and past musical teachings and experience. This sequential approach to improvisation provided a gentle algorithmic introduction to the complex practice. I could play three notes in a sequence roughly based on the rhythm of the song I was soloing in, and with a little feeling thrown in, the melody would not only sound good but emerge as my own individual contribution to the musical form. Naturally, the more skilled a musician, the better the improvisation, but nevertheless there lies behind the extraordinary inventions of improvisation a basic formula that all musicians follow.

            The algorithmic foundations of Jazz improvisation illustrate Darwin’s building blocks of evolution in part because each process is composed of mindless steps with a guaranteed result. More importantly, however, it becomes apparent in the comparison between the components of the two processes the possibility that a “crane” of brute force and mechanics can enable the fluid growth and creative flourishing that courses through music and life itself. Unlike the edited and polished forms of standard musical composition, the Jazz improviser’s scheme comes alive irreversibly with each note played, much like the path taken by variant individuals of a given species. Not only that, but the scheme produced is essentially a response to musical surroundings, an engaged correspondence to keep the tune tight, the tempo smooth – a relationship akin to that of differential reproductive success being determined by a variation functioning as a beneficial response to environment in order to keep living, to multiply (Brown, 114). An improviser’s strength resides in their creative spirit coupled with mastery of the algorithmic foundation of scales, repetition, divergence, and practice. Each time an improviser embarks upon a solo, they are taking a risk – and a solo that is both innovative and maintains the working components of its foundational legacy is prolific in that it breathes life into the song it lives within, and brings a fresh, present pulse to the genre.


Works Cited

Brown, Lee B. “Feeling My Way”: Jazz Improvisation and its Vicissitudes – A Plea For Imperfection. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Arts (Spring, 2000), pp. 113-123.


Dennet, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New York, 1995.


Ostransky, Leroy. Early Jazz. Music Educators Journal, Vol. 64, No. 6 (Feb., 1978), pp. 34-39.







Paul Grobstein's picture

jazz improv and evolution ...

 A very intriguing parallel, well worth pointing out and exploring further.  But, "a fool proof recipe"?  "mindless"?  Yes, an algorithmic "foundation." And yes, "comes alive irreversibly" because of some randomness ("every once in a while ... slightly diverge."  But does that fully account for "breathes life into the song it lives within, and brings a fresh, present pulse to the genre."?  What exactly, in algorithmic terms, is "a little feeling thrown in"? keeping "the tune tight, the tempo smooth"?  Is there a need, in jazz impro, for a "mind" on top of the algorithmic process and randomness?  

Serendip Visitor's picture

and then there was Bebop...

...when you get dropped off the "crane", go beyond the chord/scale approach and into the heart of the music! Thanks for the post!

Willie T