Welcome to JazzEngineering

Contact:   barry@jazzengineering.org

What is JazzEngineering?

JazzEngineering is a set of concepts and exercises that replace traditional engineering brainstorming and mind-mapping techniques with a method of individual and group creativity based on a jazz ensemble model. We began developing these exercises in 2004 when we realized how similar the feelings and interplay are between a good jazz band and a productive engineering design team. Experience has shown that high levels of design creativity in engineering groups can have a certain jazz-like quality. The exercises we are developing are intended to create a similar atmosphere. When working well, these exercises create a feeling of swing and effortless flow.

We have likewise been looking at ways for individuals to improve their solo design freedom using jazz improvisation concepts. This area of exploration is especially rewarding as we develop an understanding of the associative and emotional states that lead to both fine playing and fine engineering design.

We are  beginning to realize that these techniques may benefit other groups that need creative solutions; government, education, and business for example. In addition, we have been applying these same ideas to poetry and ordinary conversation.

The ideas and exercises below summarize what we have learned so far, and an exploration into what might be happening in these situations.

Some similarities between modern jazz and engineering

Mastery of a complex body of knowledge

Modern jazz players, engineers, physicians and other professionals all need to master a complex theory and historical knowledge. With this knowledge they are expected to create unique and valuable work.

Group dynamics

“Support the soloist, so that you will likewise be supported in your solo” Gary Peacock

Although it is possible for fine playing and design to occur in solo isolation, we believe that the majority of the high level work we do requires a group of supportive and creative friends and colleagues. A sounding board – to be supported and to likewise support others.

Importance of the associative process

Most people say that they don’t know where their ideas come from. We may have a faint idea, a passing inspiration, something we saw, or perhaps an emotional event that non-verbally comes out and resolves in our playing and design. It is also apparent that the on-task work we do occurs within an atmosphere consisting of all the thoughts, feelings, history, impressions, and random events that seem to spiral around us endlessly.

For the purposes of jazz engineering, we have been calling the set of thoughts and emotions the associative field. Perhaps it can be compared to a magnetic field through which the work we do must pass. Likewise the work can be thought of as a vector, which has certain attributes; starting and ending point (time); history (body of knowledge); budget; specifications (physical limits, harmony, melody); and more often than not, a narrowly defined outcome.

In creative groups, we believe that breakthrough ideas arrive in proportion to one’s facility with using the associative field to influence the task at hand. So many times we have heard someone say that the idea came to them when they were doing something else, off the vector, and daydreaming.

It is our belief that great jazz playing and great engineering occur when the artist/engineer engages and experiences an intimate and effortless flow in and out of the associative field.


The performance of music and the associated emotions of being on stage are very akin to at least two aspects of engineering and other group processes. The first is the limitation of time. A performer has to show up and start on time, read the chart in time or hear the time, cue in on time, improvise when the time comes, and yet be loose enough to let time flow; to play with time itself. You might say there is a time budget. In engineering design these same limitations occur – yet perhaps over a longer period. For example, we may have 5 days to generate several original designs for a major bridge project, and then present these ideas to clients in a corporate boardroom. The boardroom can be a creative and inspirational event, but the jazz part of the process probably occurred, if at all, in the preceding week when dealing with the limitations of ideas, time, and budget.

Some example exercises

Loosening up

1. We take turns verbalizing the uncensored images that are occurring in our individual associative fields (AF). For example: window tree needle doctor white tennis shoe gun sail. This is almost like playing scales to a musician.

2. We use what we call skip verbalizing, in which you add a selective filter to the AF, for example saying every 3rd or 4th association, and letting each association change the course of the original. This feels like an arpeggio, or constructing a chord or harmony. Example 1 would go: window needle tennis sail or window doctor shoe.

3. We practice “call and repeat” to develop a soloing and support feeling. Someone starts a 4 or 5 word AF line, repeated by the group; then a new line, and so on. We try to get this as loose as possible by speeding it up and playing with phrasing. The support group loosens up as well and starts modifying the backup. To my ear this has the feel of a traditional 1920’s or maybe early swing group.

Choose and define a vector

We decide what we want to design, the weight and power limitations and so on; or what are called the limits to the freedom of design. To a musician this is akin to choosing a tune, a key, a tempo, the feel we want, and so on.

Normally we draw a vector on a white board and label the end points, and perhaps add a few characteristics, similar to a musical lead sheet.

First Association – First take

We now free associate by turns, or simultaneously, or in solo/support mode, in order to generate and write down (quickly) as many associative streams as we can. This is akin to playing choruses. The streams seem to come to an obvious end, and then we start another one, until perhaps we have 5 or more.

Cross Association

We now pick three or four random ideas from each chorus and form one or two chords with these words. With these words we begin soloing with support and with the vector result in mind. We are free to go off on a tangent if it goes that way, but we now try to get a result, or at least an idea or two. For example, my apprentice group in 15 minutes created a low cost, low energy, original idea for moving people from downtown to the high school using the chord chair dentist skiing lettuce dirt.

Example of Process

The following photo shows the drawing board after the song chair dentist skiing lettuce dirt and designing the way to move people up a hill. The result in this case is to grow food and store rainwater at the top of the hill; carry food, water and people to the bottom of the hill; store the kinetic energy of the trip down the hill for use in carrying the people back up the hill. In essence this is a solar energy model: sun- plants- rain- weight- potential energy-kinetic energy.


The first group of 3 high school jazzaengineers built a small vehicle to prove this design. It worked! We discovered how much weight was needed to generate the energy needed to return the vehicle back to the top of the hill. This experience led to a refined concept called Django, a faster and more versatile “human electric hybrid” that was built by a later teenage jazzengineers, See a short youtube video on Django at:

All in all 15 projects were designed and built using the jazzengineering methods. While taking a short break from commercial practice I continued working on these methods with undergraduates as a Visiting Lecturer in Design Engineering at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) from 2009-2011.

The lessons learned in 35 years of commercial design engineering practice and 10 years of teaching and exploration of using jazz and other techniques in engineering education and practice will be part of a new book tentatively titled:

” The JazzEngineering Manifesto: How to be an innovative engineer in the 21st Century:  Lessons from the Harvard Engineering Design Studio 2010-2011: A model for Real World Education in Science and Engineering”.

The book has practical concepts and exercises for young engineers from primary school through university level, for their parents and teachers, and for business leaders who will manage technology in the future. The book is due to be completed in Summer of 2014.

Contact: barry@jazzengineering.org