Music Psychology: Jazz Music

Miles Davis
Miles Davis, Ohjaygee, Flickr

There hasn’t been much research conducted into jazz music psychology compared to the more intensively studied genres of heavy metal and rap, but there have been a few notable studies.

Jazz Musicians

MRI scans of improvising jazz pianists have found that an area of the brain associated with autobiographical storytelling becomes active during this creative process, and that jazz musicians enter an altered mental state, possibly similar to a dream state (Minkel, 2008). This suggests that the process of creating jazz music may be a dreamlike, wordless narrative process.

Jazz music production has unfortunately also been associated with substance abuse and mental health problems. Dr. Geoffrey Wills’ recent study of 40 famous jazz musicians active primarily during the classic era of modern jazz (1945-1960) found that jazz greats had higher-than-average rates of substance dependency (particularly alcohol and heroin), childhood abuse, mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and other psychiatric problems (BBC News, 1 September 2003). Of course, the same can be said of those in many highly creative fields, where substance abuse is rampant and psychological anomalies often appear to be the wellsprings of innovation.

Jazz Fans

Ongoing research undertaken by Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University indicates that jazz fans tend to be creative, outgoing, and at ease, and they are more likely to have high self-esteem than fans of many other music genres (BBC News, 5 September 2008).

A small study of male psychology students conducted by Kroth et al. (2008) found that those who preferred jazz tended to have “recurring pleasantness” in dreams. Heavy metal preference was also associated with pleasantness in dreams, though it was additionally linked with dissociative avoidance in dreams, as well as dreaming that one is dreaming, becoming unconscious, or falling asleep. A preference for rap/hip-hop was associated with sexual dreams.

Hall’s (2007) study of how preferences for certain media influenced the way in which an individual was perceived by others found that people had higher expectations of jazz lovers (other types of media that increased positive assumptions about people included a preference for television or film comedies). Media choices that lowered expectations of an unknown person included love of heavy metal music, soap operas, and anime.

Research conducted by North and Hargreaves (Open University in Milton Keynes, UK) found that those who listen to classical music and jazz do indeed have more education and better income prospects on average. However, listening to so-called classy music isn’t always a predictor of classy behaviour. The researchers also found that opera fans were less likely to take showers regularly, whereas those who preferred DJ-based music did so frequently (Holden, 1996).

For more music psychology articles, see the main Psychology page.


    • BBC News. (1 September 2003). “Jazz Stars Linked to Mental Illness.”
    • BBC News. (5 September 2008). “Music Tastes Link to Personality.”
    • Hall, A. (2007). “The Social Implications of Enjoyment of Different Types of Music, Movies, and Television Programming.” Western Journal of Communication, 71(4), 259-271.
    • Holden, C. (2006). “Classical’s Class and Rap’s Bad Rap.” Science Now, 297, 3.
    • Kroth, J.A.; Lamas, J.; Pisca, N.; Bourret, K.; & Killath, M. (2008). “Retrospective Dream Components and Musical Preferences.” Psychological Reports, 103, 93-96.
    • Minkel, J. R. (2008). “The Roots of Creativity.” Scientific American Mind, 19(3), 8.

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