In terms of social dynamics, I’m really impressed how a group of musicians, who are strangers to each other, can get together and make music immediately. I suppose this kind of thing is not exclusive to music though. In sports, there’s the pick-up basketball game that commonly takes place in public parks and gyms. The corporate world has ad hoc committees and the justice system throws together a “jury of your peers” for criminal trials. These zero-history groups are pretty interesting for exploring how people get along (or not) with each other.
Some musicians are so good that they can all show up for a gig and without knowing each other, and without any rehearsal, they can put on a quality performance that the audience loves. I think this is pretty common in the jazz world. Groups like this are able to perform on the spot because they all share a common knowledge base. If, say, four jazz musicians are hired and they’ve never played together, they would talk before and during the gig to figure out the songs that they all know. Plus they would rely on standard conventions of jazz performance along the way.
But what about a group of musicians who come together for the first time to create a completely new piece of music to be recorded? We’re not just talking about strangers functioning together and carrying out the things that each of them already knows how to do. Now we’re talking about group creativity. Here’s where it really gets interesting!
Below is a video of singer-songwriter-guitarist John Mayer taking part in such an experience. He joins up with guitarist-bassist and drummer to create a new song for an album. The 18-minute video covers a 12-hour period during which they go from nothing to a polished recording.
Here are a few things you’ll notice in their process:
- These guys have great musicianship. They have much experience to draw from, and all of them know a lot of the same things. They know the same conventions of rock music, the same kind of chords and progressions, rhythmic expectations, etc. And of course they all have great ears. They are adept at playing by ear and improvising, which allows them to musically interact so well together.
- As they work together, they are establishing social roles in the group process. John Mayer is clearly the leader. I assume he coordinated the project, and they all know that the song they come up with will go on his album. (He’s also the most famous…just how many movie stars has he dated?). Yet he is very accepting of the others’ ideas and input. Especially in a artistic venture like this, all members of a group must feel that their contributions are important and valued by the others. No question that’s the case here.
- They effectively communicate with each other. And they do so in a variety of ways. Like any other group, they talk together. Sometimes they say they like each others’ ideas–like at 6:08 in the video where the bassist tells the drummer, “Dude, your groove is disgusting, man” (yes, that’s a compliment!). But they also find tactful ways of voting down certain ideas. These musicians also communicate nonverbally during performance. They use eye contact, facial expression, and physical gestures. Most interesting to me, though, is the way they communicate to each other through the music they play. For example, Mayer and the drummer may hear in the bass line where the bassist thinks the chord progression should go. Or the drummer may signal in a drum fill how he thinks the tempo or rhythmic activity should change.
- Creativity requires reflection. All the musicians in the video see the value in experimenting musically and seeing what is spontaneously produced. But they also recognize the need to periodically step away from their instruments, and with fresh ears listen to what they’ve made. Psychologist Howard Gardner has suggested that exceptionally creative individuals are willing to risk failure (i.e., experiment freely), and spend much time reflecting on and refining their work.
It’s pretty impressive what a few great musical minds can come up with together!