Researchers already have shown us that music can be a powerful success tool--it can get our brains to operate at different frequencies, affect our mood and even help with memory recall. Now a study led by Emily Przysinda of Wesleyan University, as summarized by Kimber Price in an article for Science News, suggests jazz musicians' brains are firing in unique ways related to creativity.

Przysinda compared 12 jazz improvisers, 12 classical musicians, and 12 non-musicians. She used simple tests, such as coming up with uses for a paper clip, to get a picture of the creativity for each group. She then used an electroencephalogram to look at brain waves as participants listened to different kinds of chord progressions.

Now, chords are just notes played together at the same time. Chord progressions are just chords played in succession. In traditional classical music, there are standards or rules about which chords can follow others. But in more contemporary music, musicians have challenged these and other music rules to get edgier sounds and effects.

When Przysinda looked at participants' brain waves, she found that jazz improvisers demonstrated faster and stronger neural responses to unexpected or unusual music riffs. They engaged with the music more quickly and were more attuned to it, and their brains went on to other activity sooner than the brains of other participants, showing they'd figured out the "odd" music sooner. The jazz musicians also showed out-of-the-box thinking on the creativity tests and a greater preference for wild chord progressions.

The big lesson (even if you're not a musician).

The brain naturally seeks out novelty. That's part of the reason we can be so distracted by Facebook or the gossip we overhear. But jazz improvisers, who have to go with the flow in their music regularly, appear to train their brains to be even more on the lookout for the unexpected than others. This ability to look for, analyze, and work with the odd ties to creative output. And in Price's article, cognitive neuroscientist Roger Beaty of Harvard University points out that anybody can give their creativity a boost by training themselves to be more receptive to the unexpected in their specific area of expertise.

Getting your brain to a deeper love of the unusual.

One of the best ways to get more comfortable with the unusual and help your creativity is to conduct experiments. If you can't do that, try looking at industry publications of studies. Either way, you'll be forced to compare hypotheses to what actually happened.

Second, break out of your pattern. Take a new way home from work, see an exhibit at a museum or take a trip somewhere you've never been. The point is to observe and become more aware of how methods, materials, and behaviors are different than what you're used to or what you previously predicted you'd see. This is a much different goal than simply exposing yourself to new experiences for the sake of appreciating those experiences.

Through your everyday activities, there are also some good questions to ask yourself:

  • What is out of the ordinary in my immediate environment?
  • Is there another way I could complete my task?
  • What's engaging my senses right now?
  • Is this task/event proceeding like I believed it would?
  • What are others doing?
  • What's available?

One final thought.

Business leaders often are pushed or feel compelled to make things relatively predictable in the quest for higher efficiency. Look at automation and meeting agendas, for example. This very much matters to the bottom line. But research suggests that if professionals also want to be more innovative, they cannot be entirely rigid all of the time. If you want out-of-the-box thinking to go off the charts, you have to give yourself and others time to explore. Balance, science says, is the name of the game.