USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

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How does the brain create and perceive music? More specifically, what goes on inside the heads of musicians when they’re in the groove composing a song or improvising with their instruments or voice? These questions have long intrigued researcher Charles Limb, and to find answers he’s turned to studying the brains of some likely individuals: jazz musicians and rap artists.

In this quest, Charles brings some interesting credentials. He’s an auditory surgeon by training, specializing in a surgery called cochlear implantation – a way to help deaf people hear again. He currently practices at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore where he is Associate Professor of Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery. Charles is also a musician, playing the sax, piano and bass, and serves on the faculty of Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Conservatory of Music.

Says Charles: “I feel really lucky to be able to combine all of these passions in searching for a better understanding of how the mind perceives complex auditory stimuli such as music, and what parts of the brain are involved in musicians when they are deep in the process of creating and improvising.”

In conducting his research, he uses functional brain imaging (fMRI) — a technique that can measure the changes in blood flow within the brain, indicating neural activity — to study musicians’ brain regions as they improvise music on a small keyboard. For the past decade, he’s been working with jazz piano players, revealing astonishing new data about the way the brain creates art.

His research has also recently branched into a new genre: hip-hop. Although originally
more of a jazz and classical music fan, Charles became increasingly intrigued by hip-hop’s raw, grassroots characteristics the more he heard the music. He also soon realized striking similarities between jazz and rap which he found relevant for his study.

Read more about Charles here.

Watch a bit about studying how the brain reacts to creative situations. What activities do you think would be interesting to understand how the brain works during those activities?

Comments

  1. #1 GrayGaffer
    April 2, 2011

    Deep into creating a significant Verilog FPGA design. I find that to have serious sensory impact and quite anti-social side-effects since it seems to co-opt my brain’s social circuits.

  2. #2 Marcus
    April 3, 2011

    Jazz and rap are similar in a variety of ways. The focus on improvisation, and the inclusion of “quoting” prior work are found in both. Even the passing back and forth of solo’s is similar.

  3. #3 herky stubby
    May 11, 2011

    I love the tempo of rap and jazz. They are so lively. Those artist playing these kinds of music are really creative in making improvements in songs and music they do.

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