One shouldn’t really need an excuse to embed this fantastic performance by Thelonious Monk, but now there is one: NIDCD researchers believe that they have identified the cognitive neural substrate of jazz improvisation.
For the study, which is published in the open access journal PLoS One, Charles Lamb and Allen Braun recruited six professional jazz pianists. The participants were asked to play a specially-designed keyboard whilst their brain activity was monitored with functional magnetic resonance imaging.
In the control condition, the musicians were asked to play an ascending or descending scale, while during the experimental condition, they were allowed to improvise. The researchers were thus able to compare the brain activity correlated with performing a simple task in which the participants’ musical creativity was highly constrained, to that correlated with the far more complex improvised task.
It was found that the improvised condition was characterized by reduced activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain thought to be involved in the planning, organization and execution of behaviours. The implication is that deactivation activity in this area underlies the spontaneity required for the musicians’ improvisation.