Many musical innovations, such as jazz and progressive rock, have been created by artists who suffered from schizophrenia. That includes Charlie “Buddy” Bolden, an early jazz pioneer, and Syd Garrett, a co-founder of Pink Floyd.
The connections between schizophrenia, brain health and musical creativity for some artists is explained by researchers Elizabeth Kristi Poerwandari and Hersa Aranti. In their article, “Schizophrenia Behind the Great Jazz," the researchers examine the biographies of two jazz musicians, Bolden and Tom Harrell. Harrell played with Stan Kenton in the 1970s.
Bolden, born in 1877, was one of the first originators of jazz. He played cornet by improvising, playing blues mixed with ragtime rhythms. He was unable to read sheet music.
However, his career ended in 1907 after he attacked his own mother in New Orleans. He was sent to the Louisiana Asylum until his death in 1931, according to the article.
The researchers make note of Bolden’s use of improvisation.
“When professional jazz musicians improvise, they are making immediate decisions about the musical phrases they wish to produce,” the researchers state (p. 322).
The article describes improvisation as coming from an altered state of consciousness. In contrast, playing from sheet music requires a consciousness that remains logical. With that in mind, a musician who has schizophrenia may have an advantage at improvising and a disadvantage at playing from sheet music, the researchers write.
That argument rings true in my own musical abilities. While I can play violin from sheet music, I find it a challenge. I spend almost all my time improvising when I rehearse. I have been diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia.
“Schizophrenia Behind the Great Jazz,” was published by Atlantis Press, August, 2019. The study was presented to the Second International Conference on Intervention and Applied Psychology. The article can be found on academia.edu.
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