Creative leaps in musical ecosystems: early warning signals of critical transitions in professional jazz

AbstractHigh-level cognition is often accomplished not by individuals working in isolation, but by distributed, complex cognitive systems. Examples include teams of scientists or collaboratively improvising musicians. These distributed systems can undergo critical transitions, suddenly moving from one stable pattern of activity to another. For instance, in ‘free jazz,’ where musicians improvise without a predetermined plan or a central leader, the performance will often settle into a particular texture or style before transitioning to something entirely new, often quite suddenly. When do these transitions occur? Are they foreseeable? Inspired by suggestions that cognitive systems are, in some sense, a kind of ‘ecosystem,’ we draw on recent work in quantitative ecology that has begun to describe generic early warning signals of impending critical transitions in ecosystems. We apply these techniques to a corpus of audio recordings of professional jazz quartets playing improvised music. We find that the same generic measures that have been used successfully to predict critical transitions in natural ecosystems describe the complex dynamics of improvised musical performance in the lead-up to transitions. By taking seriously the metaphor that cognition occurs in ‘ecosystems,’ we gain new insights into how stable patterns of thought can emerge suddenly in complex cognitive systems.


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