Imaging Musical Improv

Some areas of the brain that typically process language are active in jazz musicians who are improvising, a study shows.

Feb 21, 2014
Abby Olena

FLICKR, MIDIMANAnyone who has listened to jazz knows that at times the performers seem to be having a musical conversation. It now seems as though this conversation is reflected in the neural activation of the musicians’ brains. In a study published in PLOS One this week (February 19), researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, showed that some regions of the brain associated with language were active in the brains of two jazz musicians as they improvised with one another.

“Until now, studies of how the brain processes auditory communication between two individuals have been done only in the context of spoken language,” coauthor Charles Limb said in a statement. “But looking at jazz lets us investigate the neurological basis of interactive, musical communication as it occurs outside of spoken language.”

The team performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on the brains of eleven jazz pianists as they traded portions of a scale, alternated parts of a memorized piece of music, and improvised on a keyboard with another pianist in the control room, whom they could hear through headphones. As the musicians improvised, the researchers observed intense activation in the players’ Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the brain, which are classically associated with language. Another area of the musicians’ brains—the angular gyrus, which is thought to play a role in interpretation of language—was deactivated during improvisation. This deactivation surprised Limb. “I figured we would have the involvement of language areas during spontaneous musical conversation, but I did not really anticipate the semantic area would be deactivated the way it was,” he told LiveScience. “Semantics has more to do with the meaning of words. So, if music has semantics, it’s not processed in the way that is traditionally used for language.”

“It makes perfect sense,” Ken Schaphorst of the jazz studies department at the New England Conservatory in Boston, who was not involved in the work, told The Atlantic. “I improvise with words all the time—like I am right now—and jazz improvisation is really identical in terms of the way it feels.”