This Is Your Brain on Jazz

A study published in the open source science journal PLoS One investigates the neural processes of jazz improvisation. Johns Hopkins neuroscientists put piano players in a fMRI scanner with a special keyboard and asked them to perform different five-finger exercises: play a scale, play a melody, and improvise on either the scale or the melody.

(The study used a very simple definition of improvisation: "Subjects improvised in quarter notes only, selecting all notes from within one octave and from the C major scale notes alone . . . . For jazz's improvisation condition, subjects improvised using the composition's underlying chord structure as the basis for spontaneous creative output."

What did they discover? The paper's summary says: "The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview. Shutting down this area could lead to lowered inhibitions, Limb suggests

"The researchers also saw increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which sits in the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This area has been linked with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story about yourself."

In other words, on improvisation, the brain had to put inhibitions on simmer and turn up the self-revelations. That sounds about right—but hardly the whole story.

Musicologists are already wondering if all types of improvisation work the same way. True jazz improvisation is different from, say, adding ornamentation to a composed lute piece. Is stringing together riffs the same process as Pharaoh Sanders surfing melodies off of his fundamental tones' harmonics? Perhaps future studies will tell us, but we'll probably never learn what that essence is that separates John Coltrane from Kenny G.

At Mindhacks, Dr. Vaughan Bell commented that the study reminded him of psychiatrist Sean Spence's theory that Buddy Bolden, considered by some to have "invented" jazz, improvised because his schizophrenia prevented him from memorizing melodies (and he couldn't read music." Spence said, "Jazz music arose from the attempts of a cognitively impaired performer to execute novel performances." He said that without the "invention" of improvisation, jazz would have just "continued as ragtime."

Um hmmm.

It's not that I think Spence is wrong—I'm sure that Bolden's inability to read music contributed to his improvisation. And perhaps his schizophrenic lack of self-censorship helped, too. Whatevs—put me in the camp of Ronnie Scott co-founder Pete Kind, "Bolden might have had schizophrenia, but that doesn't take away from his incredible talent."

Of course we should continue to explore human creativity, but I don't think we'll ever "explain" it. Some of us are touched by the refiner's fire and some of us aren't. Beethoven, Mozart, Bolden, Coltrane can't be "explained," they can only be felt.

Postscript: Have neuroscientists explored active listening? Do jazz lovers use different cognitive areas from rock or classical listeners? How about audiophiles and Consumer's Reports testers? Just asking.

Keith Spring's picture

The essence (or at least one aspect of it) that separates John Coltrane from Kenny G is intent.