How Do Cognitive Processes Differ By Level of Jazz Fanaticism?

Mark C. Gridley, Mercyhurst College, Erie, PA 16546
ABSTRACT - Listening to jazz seems to demand high-level listening abilities. But audiological findings and new observational data and interview data suggest that differences between neophyte listeners and jazz fanatics lie primarily in listening style, not innate ability, and that styles are diverse, with only a weak relationship existing between increasing fanaticism and the tendency to follow every note.
[ to cite ]:
Mark C. Gridley (1987) ,"How Do Cognitive Processes Differ By Level of Jazz Fanaticism?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 150-153.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 150-153


Mark C. Gridley, Mercyhurst College, Erie, PA 16546


Listening to jazz seems to demand high-level listening abilities. But audiological findings and new observational data and interview data suggest that differences between neophyte listeners and jazz fanatics lie primarily in listening style, not innate ability, and that styles are diverse, with only a weak relationship existing between increasing fanaticism and the tendency to follow every note.


The impetus for the research reported here was a set of findings from several studies concerned with how listeners perceive jazz. For many years I had been asking nonmusicians to differentiate jazz saxophone sounds by applying adjectives to different dimensions of their tone perceptions (Gridley 1983). Because this proved to be difficult for many listeners, I assumed that they had deficient auditory abilities. I then began to think that such deficits might be co mon to the population at large. I further reasoned that to enjoy jazz a listener had to make such distinctions routinely. Conversely, listeners who were unable to make such distinctions probably would not enjoy jazz. These ideas tied nicely to findings from another set of studies in which I had charted sales of jazz records, noting the relative popularity of each style and the musical characteristics that distinguished them (Gridley 1984). I found that the simplest styles had the greatest popularity, and that, or at least 30 years, jazz has occupied about a 3% share of the record market (and recent studies of the jazz radio market have shown a similar figure). This was consistent with a position held by a number of jazz musicians, educators and critics: one reason that most people do not like jazz is that they do not possess the attentional skills that the jazz listening task requires, so jazz listening is too difficult for them to enjoy. I took this idea a step further and assumed that fanatical jazz listeners-were jazz listeners, in part, because they possessed exceptional nonverbal auditory attentional capabilities and that the rarity of such high level skills explained, in part, the low percentage of the population that enjoys jazz. Embedded within that assumption is the belief that most people are capable of experiencing only the overall wash of sound, rather than the details of music, such as the note-to-note construction of an improvised jazz solo or the recurring themes in a symphonic piece. In 1906 a similar sentiment had been expressed by Percy Goetschius:

"There are two essentially different classes of music lovers: the one class takes delight in the mere sound and jingle of the music; not looking for any higher purpose than this, they content themselves with the purely sensuous enjoyment that the sound material afford.. ..The other class, more discriminating in its tastes, looks beneath this iridescent amount of pleasant sounds could compensate them for the absence of well-ordered parts and their logical justification."

Having read several of my papers on the subject, jazz pianist/consumer psychologist Morris Holbrook suggested that these differences in listeners might represent a continuum of cognitive processes, ranging from those characterizing the neophyte listener to those characterizing the jazz fanatic. Holbrook invited me to rethink my old data and collect new data that was specific to identifying cognitive differences that separate listeners who represent different levels of jazz fanaticism.


i My exploration took two paths. First I tried to determine the nonverbal auditory processing abilities that characterized the general population, especially in those listeners who did not prefer jazz. And second, I asked jazz listeners how they attended to the music, specifically whether they experienced automatically just the overall wash of sound and contours of the music or they focused automatically on the note-by-note details of the improvisations. To pursue Holbrook's idea that a continuum exists with respect to levels of fanaticism, I asked the listeners to tell me how many jazz albums they owned, how frequently they attended concerts, listened to jazz on the radio, organized their social life around opportunities to hear jazz, etc.

Appraising Auditory Abilities

The single most valuable pool of data was gathered by George Duerksen on 1,914 listeners, 230 of whom said jazz was their favorite style (1967, 68 & 71). Though it did not provide information on lifestyle or how many albums were owned by each participant, Duerksen's study provided valuable data because it was a listening skills task requiring the detection of recurring themes in altered forms.

I expected that jazz fans would perform well with a task t such as Duerksen's because I assumed they perform a similar one every time they listen to jazz, if getting the most out of jazz involves following pitches in a melodic line and comparing themes embedded within improvisations. t But Duerksen's jazz fans did not perform substantially better than fans of any other kinds of music, the degree to which they preferred jazz over other kinds of music showed no relationship to their success on Duerksen's task. Another surprising finding was that listening experience and musical training made only a modest difference in the task performances, no matter what style the subject preferred.

I also obtained the distribution for the normative sample of Marilyn Pinheiro's Pitch Patterns Test (Musiek & Pinheiro 1986), a task that requires subjects to notice changes in groups of tones, a task that parallels what I believed music listeners do when following the line in a jazz improvisation. Performances on the PPPT were almost homogeneous, demonstrating a highly leptokurtic distribution. In other words, according to Duerksen's and Pinheiro's data, it was apparent that the skills that I assumed to be necessary for listening to jazz improvisation were possessed by most of the population, not exclusively the tiny proportion who liked jazz. This distribution was similar to that which is ordinarily found in audiological screenings. Therefore, we are reminded that most people have fairly equivalent auditory processing capacity.

Because these findings so thoroughly contradicted my own beliefs as well as common wisdom among music educators, initially I was inclined to dismiss them as anomalous. However, Dowling and Harwood (1986) have published a set of literature reviews also showing that musicians and other kinds of trained listeners are not necessarily hearing any more than ordinary listeners, listening experience and musical training are associated with only modest gains in ability to detect intervals, recurring themes, etc. and a number of other investigators came to the same conclusions after having tested different subjects with different procedures. Brand and Burnsed (1981) contended that "there was no relationship between selected music abilities and skill in music error detection." Jesse Evans (1965) found that understanding of musical elements hat only a slight relationship with affective response. Similarly, Warren Prince's data (1968) led him to say that "there is no evidence to support the contention that increased liking for a particular style of music will result when a program of directed listening is employed." In other words, the amount of listening experience and/or listening ability did not make much difference in how well listeners followed the details of music or liked the music, and I could no longer assume that it was primarily listening ability that accounted for the tiny size of the jazz audience.

Consistent with the above findings, I remembered that, in jazz appreciation courses I had taught, neophyte jazz listeners could detect almost every note in an improvised line, as they demonstrated by graphing brief excerpts. One listener had told me that as soon as the suggestion had been planted, she found herself able to detect intervals and recurring themes. Apparently, the idea itself was sufficient to cause the listener to exercise a focus that she had always been capable of anyway. This is consistent with Holbrook and Berteges's findings in which naive and expert listeners showed high and almost identical degrees of perceptual veridicality when the stimuli were recorded performances of classical piano pieces (1981).

Appraising Fanaticism and Listening Style

To determine the relationship between jazz fanaticism and how people listened, I began seeking listeners to tell me what they ordinarily heard when they listened to a jazz improvisation ("every note in the improvised line?" "just the contour of the line?" "the overall wash of sound?"). Seventy-eight subjects were recruited from these sources:

1. jazz fans among my circle of friends and fellow jazz musicians.

2. jazz listeners who attended my performances during weekends where I play at two supper clubs, one in Westlake and the other in Sandusky, Ohio.

3. members of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors.

4. jazz subscribers at WQLN, a National Public Radio station in Erie, Pennsylvania.

5. members of The Northeast Ohio Jazz Society.

Many subjects belonged to more than one of these five categories.


Several listeners said, first, that they were new to jazz, and, second, that what they heard was just the overall sound, nothing in particular. Some said that changes in loudness or instrument occasionally grabbed their attention, but that they did not necessarily hear anything in particular unless "it jumped out at them." At any given table in the night club where I was playing, frequently one patron would have come for the jazz, whereas the other patrons would have come primarily to accompany the jazz seeker. So I queried not only the jazz seeker, but also the seeker's companion(s), once I determined that the companion(s) was an ordinary listener. And, as I had expected, the experienced listeners sometimes reported that they followed the solo line note-for-note, whereas the companions usually reported hearing only the overall wash of sound.

Further clarification was obtained from in-depth interviews with two long-time jazz fans who were nonmusicians. Both told me how they had begun listening to jazz because they liked the way it made them feel, but then, as the years passed, they pushed themselves to get more out of it. One learned about the song forms that underlying improvisation, and he began attending to the way solo improvisations could reflect the underlying chord progressions that were borrowed from pop tunes he knew. The other began recognizing characteristic phrases that were favorites for particular improvisers and found satisfaction in being capable of identifying them during radio broadcasts before the disc jockey identified the musicians in a recording. And he did this by recognizing their "musical signatures."

Students attending my performances were frequently able to detect song forms upon which my improvisations were structured if they were attending jazz classes with the particular professor who gave lecture/demonstrations on song forms (12-bar blues, 32-bar A-A-B-A, etc.).: and they also were able to improve in their detection skills in the few hours they spent with my band, if I prepared them for each piece and then cued them as section markers occurred during the improvisations. This reminded me of my success in teaching students, during a single, lengthy class period, to detect song forms. Incidentally, for those students whose instructors had never devoted class time to "how to listen," the task of following a jazz improvisation was so difficult that they were lost and SEEMINGLY UNABLE to follow an improvised line or the form of chord progression in its accomPaniment. This reminded me of how some of my own students had reacted with bewilderment when I first requested that they "graph" a brief excerpt of a recorded jazz improvisation, but that, within a few assignments and a couple notes of criticism on their homework, almost all my students were acknowledging almost every note in selected excerpts. I had assumed that everyone automatically and reflexively "saw" solos as they heard them, and that they could commit their visions to paper to prove to me that they were listening to their assignments. In conversations with listeners, I found that such an automatic perceptual experience was not necessarily co D n to all listeners; it was almost a synesthetic phenomenon. However, if asked to do it, most listeners could graph the contours of an improvised line, much as Lawrence Marks (1975) has shown that those of us who are not synesthetic can still appreciate synesthetic metaphors and similes in poetry and literature.

When I selected subjects who said initially they focus only on contours or on overall sound, and I asked them whether they tend to listen note-for-note after their initial exposure to a given performance or after the first few moments within, some said they did. and some said essentially that they automatically moved from a molar to a molecular approach over time. Others indicated that they could make such a switch if they wished, but that they did not routinely focus on the note-by-note aspects of improvisations. (Verification for this was available in my earlier experiences with hundreds of nonmusician students.)

Interviewees reported a number of different listening styles, not just two, and not necessarily styles that could be construed as subcategories of the two that Goethius assumed to be operating. Some listened to the solo line, whereas others listened to the accompaniment. Some listened to details of the accompaniment, whereas others listened to the overall coherence of the accompaniment. Some followed only the contours of the line, whereas others listened for the melodic content in the line and the phrasing of ideas in the line. Some listened to the interaction between accompaniment and solo line.

I had been assuming that with more experience there would be a greater likelihood of following every note, and several of the fanatics indicated that such a listening style did characterize them. But one aficionado said he tended to hear whole phrases first and individual notes later, if necessary. One jazz musician said that the first time he hears a piece, he experiences the overall wash of sound, then, only if he likes it enough to want to write it down and play it, will he hear it note-for-note on a subsequent listening. Another jazz musician said first he hears the pulse, next he hears the contour of the melody, and only later does he hear the individual notes. And another musician said he goes back and forth between hearing the overall wash of sound and hearing the details, though, if given several auditions, he usually hears the details first and the overall wash on later listenings.

As I interviewed more listeners who had jazz record collections ranging from 1200 to 15,000 albums and who organized their social lives, sometimes their work lives, around opportunities to hear jazz, I found more styles of listening. Some said their automatic response to jazz improvisations was to focus on rhythm. Some said first they recognize the tones of the instruments. This mirrored the reports of the less fanatical listeners, those people who had only 50 to 150 albums and did not organize their social lives around the opportunities to hear jazz.

I asked respondents whether they played or had any experience playing musical instruments. A few who said, "Yes, I've played the bass," also said that bass was the first aspect of the jazz band sound they focused on. Drummers focused on drums. Hornmen focused on the horns. This trend was by no means universal, but it was common for the type of musical experience to be associated with the type of listening style.

Musicians, more than any other group, focused on such aspects as phrasing and note choice. But because so many musicians did not mention such aspects--they identified other aspects first--I am reluctant to say that a note-for-note listening style characterizes musician-listeners more than it characterizes nonmusician listeners. Enough musicians said "the beat," or "overall sound," or "swing feeling" that, without a substantially larger sample, generalization would not be prudent.

When I selected subjects who said initially that they focus only on contours or on overall sound, and I asked them whether they tend to listen note-for-note after their initial exposure to a given performance, some said they did. And some said essentially that they automatically move from a molar to a molecular approach over time. Others indicated that they could make such a switch if they wished, but that they did not routinely focus on the not-by-note aspects of improvisations. (Verification for this was available in my earlier experiences with hundreds of nonmusician students.)

Listening styles did not line up clearly with such listener characteristics as size of record collection or extent of radio listening or concert-going, or whether they played music professionally. (Distinctions are difficult to make here, however, because the vast majority of avid collectors have at least a few years of instruction on at least one musical instrument, and many are amateur players or semi-pro musicians.) However, those with the largest collections were somewhat more likely to report listening for the underlying chord progressions. Several devoted fans, nonmusicians as well as musicians, reported their first mode of listening to be a search for the identity of the tune originally associated with the chord progressions being used in the improvisation (jazz musicians frequently borrow pop tune accompaniments and use them for accompanying improvisations). No neophyte fans reported such a listening style. And several of the most avid collectors reported focusing first on a determination of how original were the musical ideas in the improvised line. No neophyte listeners reported such a listening style. Some devoted fans reported listening first to the chord progressions, not to the solo line. No neophytes reported such an approach. Many avid listeners reported first following just the contours of improvised lines than later following note-by-note, or first focusing on the overall group cohesiveness, then later attending to the construction of the solo line. Though many neophytes also reported listening just to the overall sound, most did not mention routinely moving to a more detailed evaluation later. When queried, most neophytes did indicate, however, that they were capable of following note-for-note, and they demonstrated this to me when 1 asked them to recite details. In other words, consistent with the above cited ability studies, the neophytes were capable of listening in a note-by-note fashion, but they were not prone to use that style of listening.


I had assumed that to get the most out of jazz, the listener, had to follow every note in the solo line, identify recurring themes and little melodies embedded in the improvisations, and that fanatical listeners employed that method whenever they were exposed to a jazz performance. I also assumed that jazz listeners were better able to sustain concentration on such a task because they represented an elite group of innately superior listeners. However, a number of experienced jazz listeners reported that rhythm or "the beat" or "the pulse" was the most salient attribute of the jazz listening experience. This challenged my assumptions. I found that many jazz fans, even aficionados, were drawn first to rhythmic aspects such as the insistent pulse of the sound or the swing feeling. They were not necessarily drawn first to the note-by-note construction of the improvised lines. In fact, one interviewee, who owns thousands of records, runs his own jazz radio program, and teaches jazz history, said that his greatest joy comes from hearing the rhythmic tensions that are generated between parts in the jazz combo.

Jazz fans, even the most fanatical, do not comprise a homogeneous group with respect to their cognitive processes, nor do their levels of processing lie along a single continuum. In other words, a new model must be drafted to describe the jazz listening task. And it has to include variations that account for those fans who said they listen first to "just the overall sound," for those who said "the beat" and for those who said "I listen for little melodies inside the jazz improvisations." And it has to account for those listeners who apply a variety of approaches within each audition, those who flit back and forth between approaches or divide their attention among elements.

So, despite my earlier views, it now seems that the reason many people experience only the overall wash of sound in a musical performance is not that they are incapable of following the details, but rather that they are not motivated to seek the details. They are the first of the two classes of music lover that Goetschius described. And cognitive style seems to explain why some people automatically hear details first and the whole later, other listeners hear the whole first and the details later, whereas an additional category of listeners (perhaps the largest category) flits back and forth "from seeing the forest to seeing the trees," so to speak.

I did not measure the listening abilities of my subjects. So there remains the possibility that fanatical jazz listeners do possess superior listening skills. However, because Duerksen and others tested such large samples, including jazz fans, and found that the vast majority of listeners have similar capabilities, it is unlikely that jazz fanatics have superior capability. Most devoted fans, however, are aware of a greater number of listening styles. And, of course, the more experienced listeners have made more choices about what to listen for, and they have a backlog of material with which to compare each new performance. If we characterize this as listening skill, then the fanatics do possess more than the neophytes possess. However, in many phases of the study and the accumulation of the material that led up to it, inexperienced listeners demonstrated that, with minimal instruction, they could follow just about as much of the musical detail as many of the most serious fanatics routinely followed.

Listening styles were found to not be highly organized according to increasing size of record collection along a continuum of tendency toward listening for note-by-note construction of jazz improvisation. The tendency is there. But the diversity of listening styles obscures it, and the number of extreme fanatics who do not listen in that way is substantial. Furthermore, almost all interviewees, regardless of level of fanaticism, reported capability of following in a note-by-note fashion. An interaction between cognitive style and motivation explains the largest portion of the variance in approaches that people use in listening to jazz. Listening experience and knowledge of the material seem to play the next greatest role.

Both of Goetschius's classes of music lovers exist among jazz fans, whether they be neophytes or fanatics. Furthermore, every variation and combination of those types can be found in abundance. Among jazz listeners of widely differing sophistication there are widely differing approaches to listening. But choice of listening style does not necessarily reflect listening ability or level of fanaticism. Though I personally believe that, to get the most out of listening to jazz, one needs to follow every note of the solo improvisation, I will no longer claim that those listeners who experience primarily the wash of sound are any less fanatical or any less capable listeners than are those who listen note-for-note.


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