Jazz, STEM and the Creative Process

The Times Higher has given me yet  another reason to be disgruntled this week, in the form of an article that talks about the possible effect of the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) on “creative” subjects. What bothers me about this piece is not that it criticises the TEF – I think that’s an unworkable idea that will cause untold damage to the University system if, as seems likely, it is railroaded through for political reasons – but that the author (Nigel Carrington, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Arts London), like so many others, lazily implies that STEM disciplines are not creative. I think some of the most intensively creative people in the world are to be found in science and engineering and creativity is something we try very hard to nurture in students at Sussex University regardless of discipline.

Anyway, while feeling grumpy about this article, I remembered this video of an interview with the great jazz pianist, Bill Evans. Jazz is undoubtedly an intensely creative form, not only because it requires spontaneous real-time conversion of ideas into sounds. Evans talks with great passion and insight about creativity in music-making, but the striking thing about what he says at the  very beginning about the need to analyse your subject at a very elementary level before proceeding in order to create something that’s “real” applies equally well to, e.g. theoretical physics as it does to jazz.

In the following section he reiterates this point, but also stresses the discipline imposed by a particular form and why this does not limit creativity but makes it stronger.

It’s better to do something simple that is real. It’s something you can build on. because you know what you’re doing. Whereas, if you try to approximate something very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t build on it.

No matter how far I might diverge or find freedom in this format, it only is free insofar that it has reference to the strictness of the original form. That’s what gives it its strength.

In much the same way, theoretical physics is not made less creative because it has to obey the strict rules of mathematics but more so. This is true also in the fine arts: the more limited the canvas the more creative the artist must be, but it also applies to, e.g. engineering design. Self-teaching is important in STEM subjects too: the only really effective way of learning, e.g. physics, is by devoting time to working through ideas in your own mind, not by sitting passively in lectures.

All subjects require technical skill, but there is more to being a great jazz musician than mastery of the instrument just as there’s more to being a research scientist than doing textbook problems. So here’s to creativity wherever it is found, and let’s have a bit more appreciation for the creative aspects of science and engineering!




3 Responses to “Jazz, STEM and the Creative Process”

  1. I completely agree with you. I do think that there are mediums in which the structure is mostly absent, I believe the artist Robert Irwin (please see the very fine book “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees” about him, it’s such a great read whether you like his work or not (and many times I don’t)) pushed himself in this direction – and this way of working is just as creative as that which works within a structure, like Bill Evans with jazz, or those of us who work with theoretical physics, so have both mathematics and nature giving a framework.

    I have found theoretical physics to require great leaps and great stillness for ideas and connections to come, there is little methodical or rote about it, and those parts like….calculating a million Feynman diagrams or something like this, and I don’t like those parts. Except it does feel a bit like exercising, I think “this must be good for me.”

    Creativity is probably needed to do anything at a high level – I have seen a car mechanic diagnose my poor old car and he too was an artist, how he listened, felt, deduced from clues.

    Lovely post – an earlier post of yours introduced me to Bill Evans – thank you very much for that as well as for posting his thoughts on the creative process, he’s truly brilliant.

  2. This reminds me of Feynman in ‘The character of physical law’, discussing the idea that because science advances by comparing conjectures to experiment, “guessing [the laws of physics] is a dumb man’s job”. Theoreticians have to excercise their creativity in constructing models that selectively break the present laws of physics (I.e. Make new testable predictions) whilst building on the firm fixtures of those laws in the areas we’ve already tested.

  3. […] with playing an instrument. Artists have to pay their dues just like scientists. I wrote about this here, in the context of the great Jazz pianist Bill Evans, where I […]

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