The neuroscience of jazz improvisation


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.

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... or that this is a well-practiced task. Decreased activity is a hallmark of expert performance in chess, too and other tasks if I am not mistaken. Landau's (2005) dissertation used an fMRI in examining piano playing as well (very different task, though, and not discussed in the present paper), finding both short and long term decreases in activity (increases in efficiency) with practice.

The current paper (very cool!), in examining expert jazz pianists, may have inadvertently selected subjects for whom the improvisational component was well-practiced--perhaps even more familiar than scale work! (This should not be the case, of course, but liner notes of jazz collections sometimes make a point of how much a particular figure practiced scales, noting that this is somewhat rare but extremely useful in improvisation.) The authors do suggest that their sample may have produced some artifacts, but in my reading this was not one that was discussed (I could have missed it).

Of course, it would be extraordinarily difficult to follow the long-term progress of someone becoming an expert jazz pianist with fMRI... but wouldn't that be just the coolest long-term project ever?

I'll have to take a look at that paper, but I'm surprised the comparison was between scales and improvisation. Playing scales is something you work on until there is no thought required at all, like walking or catching a ball. It's the musical equivalent of drumming your fingers. A better comparison would be playing a non-improvised piece, but that would probably show up less obviously on the MRI. Maybe that's their next step?

Yabut, is there activity in the transverse colon during disco?

By gerald spezio (not verified) on 28 Feb 2008 #permalink

Chris--as controls, they had a total of 4 musical tasks--C scale, improv only on C scale, memorized original jazz piece, improvisation on the chords from that piece. Your question is a very good one, but I think (just a gut feeling) that using experts might have inverted the order of difficulty in the last two. (Ok, not "difficulty" per se, but cognitive load, I suppose)

Just speaking philosophically, "explaining" improvisational ability as a deficit seems wrong-headed. It's certainly possible, as noted in the comment above, that what's showing up is expertise. Wouldn't it be interesting to investigate what parts of the brain are activated during improv?

re practiced scales vs improv the notion that scales are "automatic" makes the contrast even more intriguing to me. i also wonder if improv is properly described as more complex. i am neither neuroscientist nor jazz musician but i have play music professionally. something makes me think about how it feels when you are "in the zone" in performance and how space seems to open up inside your mind and you feel like you are not really doing the playing somehow.....

By Gary Weiner (not verified) on 28 Feb 2008 #permalink

I agree with Chris that the comparison between scales and improvised pieces is methodologically surprisingly.
The use of TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) as a research tool it had been more effective because it can cause a disruption in a given neurocognitive module during the piano performance leading to know wheter it was essential for the performance albeit i don´t know wether its safe or its possible to accomplish the use of TMS in this study.

Do people really think improvisation doesn't involve planning, organization, and execution? Do they think brilliant jazz musicians are just mindlessly banging random keys?

I can see the novice/expert angle, because as you get better at it, the rules/patterns/tricks of improvising become more natural. Sort of like having patterns for the whole chessboard instead of just a few pieces. But improvising is definitely rule-bound.

Those interested in this subject might want to check this post at the rehearsal studio. The owner, Stephen Smoliar, did his doctoral work in computer music, is a music critic including jazz and is pretty articulate about the limitations of what he calls "normal science."

A very brief comment, but naked for what I am forced to leave out in order to be brief.

A scan of a talented musician "idiot savant" who supposedly has received no musical training of any kind is glaringly demanded here?

By gerald spezio (not verified) on 29 Feb 2008 #permalink