Jazz improvisation has become a hot topic in neuroscience lately, and little wonder. “Musical improvisation is one of the most complex forms of creative behavior,” write the authors of a study published in April in Brain Connectivity. Research on the brains of improvisers offers “a realistic task paradigm for the investigation of real-time creativity”—an even hotter topic in neuroscience.
Researchers study jazz players for the same reason they take MRI scans of the brains of freestyle rappers—both involve creating spontaneous works “where revision is not possible,” and where only a few formal rules govern the activity, whether rhyme and meter or chord structure and harmony. Those who master the basics can leap into endlessly complex feats of improvisatory bravado at any moment.
It’s a power most of us only dream of possessing—though it’s also the case that many a researcher of jazz improvisations also happens to be a musician, including study author Martin Norgaard, a trained jazz violinist who “began studying the effects of musical improvisation… while earning his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin,” notes Jennifer Rainey Marquez at Georgia State University Research Magazine.
Norgaard interviewed both students and professional musicians, and he analyzed the solos of Charlie Parker to find patterns related to specific kinds of brain activity. In this recent study, Norgaard, now at Georgia State University, worked with Mukesh Dhamala, associate professor of physics and astronomy, using an fMRI to measure the brain activity of “advanced jazz musicians” who sang both standards and improvisations while being scanned.
The researchers' findings are consistent with similar studies, like those of John Hopkins surgeon Charles Limb, who also considers jazz a key to understanding creativity. While improvising, musicians show decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that generates planning and overthinking, and gets in the way of what psychologists call a state of "flow." Improvising might engage "a smaller, more focused brain network,” says Norgaard, “while other parts of the brain go quiet.”
Training and practice in improvisation may also have longer-term results as well. A study contrasting the brain activity of jazz and classical players found that the former were much quicker and more adaptable in their thinking. The researchers attributed these qualities to changes in the brain wrought by years of improvising. Norgaard and his team are much more circumspect in their conclusions, but they do suggest a causal link.
In a study of 155 8th graders enrolled in a jazz for kids program, Norgaard found that the half who were given training in improvisation showed “significant improvement in cognitive flexibility.” Research like this not only validates the intuitions of jazz musicians themselves; it also helps define specific questions about the cognitive benefits of playing music, which are generally evident in study after study.
“For nearly three decades,” Norgaard says, “scientists have explored the idea that learning to play an instrument is linked to academic achievement.” But there are “many types of music learning.” It's certainly not as simple as studying Bach to work on accuracy or Coltrane for flexibility, but different kinds of music creates different structures in the brain. We might next wonder about the mathematical properties of these structures, or how they interact with modern theories of physics. Rest assured, there are jazz-playing scientists out there working on the question.