Jazz bands succeed by missing links among musicians

What makes a tune successful? Does musical innovation happen through individual genius or is it the result of teamwork? In an article published in Applied Network Science, Balazs Vedres investigates the levels of creative exchange in the the jazz world, and the ways in which these can foster (or limit) musical success.

Close connections in a team might help trust and easy understanding, but such cohesive connections might hinder creativity. Researchers have long assumed that there is a trade-off between the strength of ties and the diversity of ties. Usually teams have strong, cohesive ties within, and weaker, diverse connections outside. While closure (high density) of ties is indeed correlated with the strength of ties, strong ties are not always closed.

In our recently published article in Applied Network Science, we focus on exactly these kinds of network ties: strong, but not closed connections. Using the case of the entire history of recorded jazz from 1896 to 2010, with hundreds of thousands of recording sessions, we show that the openness of strong connections is an important predictor of success. Cohesion, in contrast, is not related to success at all.

Strong but open connections are best conceptualized at the level of a triad (a small sub-network of three musicians). Originally, when social scientists started to think about the strength of a tie and closure, they distinguished three types of triads: closed triads of strong ties, open triads of weak ties, and forbidden triads (an open triad with two strong ties).

Sessions where half of the triads are forbidden (the optimal range), on average, see a six percent increase in the number of releases.

Forbidden triads were thought of as rare and anomalous, and thus never became subject to study. Such triads, however, are possible sources of creativity in a team. Think of a jazz session, where a saxophone player brings along a drummer with whom he has played extensively, and also a pianist, with whom he has played several times. The drummer and the pianist, however, have never met before in a session. This means, that our sax player different experiences, maybe different playing styles with the drummer, and the pianist. This difference now is being brought into the same session, and the result might be a novel sound, or approach to playing jazz.

The data on jazz collaborations show, first, that jazz musicians tolerate, and possibly rely on forbidden triads, beyond what we would expect in a random null model. In our random jazz worlds there are significantly fewer forbidden triads – as the weight of ties increases, the probability of closure increases significantly faster, than in the observed world of jazz.

The data shows, second, that success in jazz is a function of the right amount of forbidden triads. Sessions differ in the number of releases that come out of them – many sessions are recorded just to be released once, but some are released multiple times. (The very best of jazz – “Kind of Blue” from Miles Davis was released more than 120 times.) Sessions where half of the triads are forbidden (the optimal range), on average, see a six percent increase in the number of releases. For an outstanding artist, like Miles Davis, who really understood the importance of novel approaches, the benefit of forbidden triads is a tenfold increase in expected releases.

Read the full research article here.

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