Study Illuminates Brain Activity During Jazz Improvisation
> 3/11/2008 12:18:09 PM

Without the ability to create and improvise, the unique and complex forms of art, music, and literature would be impossible, and recent studies have begun to use these artistic endeavors as tools for peering deeper into the brain. The experience of music in particular has become a target for researchers, although most have focused on the brain patterns of individuals listening to music, not creating it. Late last month, research appearing in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) One provided insight into the creative process by studying the minds of professional musicians asked to both play music by memory and generate an improvised melody.

The study
was authored by Dr. Charles Limb, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (and a trained jazz saxophonist), and Dr. Allen Braun of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Both have been involved in previous studies on the affects of music and language on the brain, and they designed a special plastic keyboard that could be held and played by someone inside of an fMRI machine. Six professional jazz pianists served as the study's subjects, and each took a turn playing the keyboard while undergoing an fMRI scan. They were given four tasks that would highlight differences in how their brains functioned while playing a song from memory versus improvising. Initially, each pianist played a basic C major scale using quarter notes. Then, in an easy improvisational exercise, they created a tune using the notes in the C scale, once again restricted to quarter notes. Next, they played a blues melody that they had memorized in advance while listening with headphones to a pre-recorded accompaniment. Finally, with the jazz accompaniment still playing, the pianists were given free reign to improvise their own melody.

The researchers found that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area involved in planning and self-monitoring, became less active during improvisational playing, and this may be an crucial factor in these musicians' reduced inhibition and in their ability to form new creations and use novel techniques without planning ahead. Heightened activity was also observed in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with self-expression, and this finding relates to earlier research conducted by Dr. Braun. In a 2001 study on language production, he reported that activity in the medial prefrontal cortex was associated with recollections of autobiographical information. In their current research, Dr. Limb and Dr. Braun note that jazz musicians use a personal style when playing and that jazz improvisation has been described as autobiographical. These patterns of brain activation and deactivation were consistent whether the pianist was engaged in the simple improvisational exercise or the more complex one, an indication that changes in brain activity were caused by the act of improvising and not by the difficulty of the task.

As professionals, all of these musicians had a well-developed ability to improvise, and these results cannot be generalized to the general public. However, the researchers suggest that these same patterns of brain activity may occur during other situations. Future research should investigate patterns of brain activation in people engaged in other artistic activities, like drawing and writing, and in non-artistic activities that still require use of improvisational skills, such as conversing with others or problem-solving. More information on how the brain functions during creative activities adds to our understanding of brain functioning in general, and continued research may yield a more comprehensive understanding of the roles played by different regions of the brain.

No comments yet.

Post Your Comments

Post a comment
Email Address:
Verification Code:
Input the 8 characters you see above:


Drug Abuse
Sexual Addiction
Eating Disorders
Alzheimer's Disease

About TOL | Contact Us | Defining Behavioral Fitness | For Healthcare Professionals | Links | Privacy Policy