Jazz is Open Source

Why jazz embodies the hacker spirit.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014 · 3 min read

People who sound like they’re in charge of things—such as the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music—agree that the role of the classical performer is merely to present the music written by the composer. And present it in the exact form that the composer wrote.

Good performers, it should be said, do not resent this. After all, they are seeking to turn into real sounds the music which the composer had in his imagination; the more they can discover what exactly he had in mind, the more they are helped.

— Eric Taylor, The AB [Associated Board] Guide to Music Theory

Perhaps this is a way to honor the genius of great composers of the past. But nevertheless, classical performers, therefore, are just that. Performers.

Jazz, on the other hand is different. Jazz is fluid. A jazz track is far more about the performer than the piece played, so no two performances of Autumn Leaves will sound the same. Or even close to each other. This is because a jazz song defines the minimum you need for musicians to play together: a theme and the changes. The theme is a single melody line that everyone relates to the song. The changes are the chords that go with the melody. Jazz musicians take turns improvising while the rest play those chords to guide the improvisation and stay together.

Take jazz notation, for instance. Jazz musicians get their theme and changes from so-called ‘fake books’ (allegedly because fake books let them ‘fake’ it so it sounds like they know the song). Fake books are also called real books, because logic.

Anyhow, a fake book is usually a stack of photocopies of hand-written music of questionable origins. The changes are scrawled on top. While classical musicians write theses on what notes Bach would approve of in a trill, jazz musicians barely mark an accent. This is what gives a jazz musician freedom: you could play the same song slowly, or fast, or with a Bossa Nova, or with a walking bass; or you could play with three beats in a measure (like a Waltz) or five (which is rather rare in classical music), or nine. You could phrase notes together, or play them individually. You could swing notes, or play them straight. Each variation on each note is what gives a certain performance its character. Jazz is a hackable music.

But it’s not just hackable, it’s open-source. Jazz musicians learn from other jazz musicians by listening. It’s not a conscious effort—as you hear music, your brain registers interesting bits. It could be a sequence of notes, a chord, even a rhythmic structure. But if you like it, you’ll try to imitate it when you play, and soon it’s incorporated into your music. Jazz works because jazz musicians listen to each other and contribute to the growth and evolution of jazz as a genre.

Now, the beauty of the system is that such new musical ideas aren’t created intentionally as paintings are painted. They’re accidents. Jazz musicians experiment as they improvise. Some experiments don’t work, but most of them do, because jazz inherently allows for experimentation. The experiments that work are new music.

This is similar, in a way, to how design evolves. There were times when a webpage which used rounded corners and gradients and shocking animations was cool, because that was stunning new technology. At some point, Apple introduced skeuomorphic designs inspired by real-world material. Now software is moving towards flat design, where bold colors and sans-serif fonts prevail. This evolution is fueled by what designers get inspired by and what people like. Jazz evolves the same way. Music is directed towards trends, entirely based off what people enjoy listening to.

You may have noticed where I’m going with this. Jazz evolves through random mutations, the less musical of which are pruned out. Musicians mix strains of jazz together to produce new music which may survive better or may not work out. It’s natural selection.

Jazz evolves, just like creatures do.

And that points to a key idea: when people can directly influence a system, it evolves very rapidly. That’s why the open-source software world evolves so rapidly: the open-source world is built by the people who live in it. That, I think, is one of the key elements of the hacker culture.

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