The Brains of Jazz and Classical Musicians Work Differently, New Research Shows

All of the musi­cians I’ve played with have been impro­vis­ers, whether they came from jazz, rock, folk, or what­ev­er. As a loose impro­vi­sor myself, I’ve found it dif­fi­cult to col­lab­o­rate with trained clas­si­cal play­ers. It’s not for lack of try­ing, but—while we like to think of music as a uni­ver­sal language—the means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion were strained at best. Clas­si­cal musi­cians have a hard time with spon­ta­neous com­po­si­tion; jazz play­ers are gen­er­al­ly com­fort­able with loose tech­nique and can adapt to exper­i­ments and unex­pect­ed shifts.

I’d always chalked this dif­fer­ence up to dif­fer­ent kinds of train­ing (or lack there­of in my case), but a new study by researchers in Leipzig sug­gests a deep­er neu­ro­log­i­cal basis, at least when it comes strict­ly to jazz ver­sus clas­si­cal musi­cians. Researchers at the Max Planck Insti­tute for Human Cog­ni­tive and Brain Sci­ences stud­ied the brains of thir­ty pianists—half jazz play­ers, half clas­si­cal. They found, the Insti­tute reports, that “dif­fer­ent process­es occur in jazz and clas­si­cal pianists’ brains, even when per­form­ing the same piece.”

It’s a con­clu­sion play­ers them­selves intu­itive­ly under­stand. As jazz pianist Kei­th Jar­rett once said, when asked if he would ever play both jazz and clas­si­cal in con­cert, “No… it’s [because of] the cir­cuit­ry. Your sys­tem demands dif­fer­ent cir­cuit­ry for either of those two things.” This isn’t due to hard-wired bio­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences, but to the way the brain cre­ates path­ways over time in response to dif­fer­ent musi­cal activ­i­ties. As neu­ro­sci­en­tist Daniela Samm­ler puts it:

The rea­son could be due to the dif­fer­ent demands these two styles pose on the musicians—be it to skill­ful­ly inter­pret a clas­si­cal piece or to cre­ative­ly impro­vise jazz. There­by, dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures may have estab­lished in their brains while play­ing the piano which makes switch­ing between the styles more dif­fi­cult.

On its face, the study may hard­ly seem illu­mi­nat­ing. We have long known that repeat­ed actions change the struc­ture of the brain, so why should it be dif­fer­ent for musi­cians? Things get a lit­tle more inter­est­ing as we dig into the details. One find­ing, study author Robert Bian­co notes, shows that jazz pianists “replan… actions faster than clas­si­cal pianists” and were “bet­ter able to react and con­tin­ue their per­for­mance” when asked to play a har­mon­i­cal­ly unex­pect­ed chord with­in a stan­dard pro­gres­sion (see graph below).

On the oth­er hand, Sci­ence Dai­ly reports, clas­si­cal pianists’ brains showed, “a stronger aware­ness of fin­ger­ing, and con­se­quent­ly they made few­er errors while imi­tat­ing the chord sequence.” The crit­i­cal dis­tinc­tion between the two relates to how they plan move­ments, with clas­si­cal pianists focus­ing on the “How” of tech­nique and jazz play­ers on the “What” of adap­ta­tion to the unex­pect­ed.

Oth­er stud­ies sub­stan­ti­ate the find­ings. Researchers at Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty focused on the role of what they call “expectan­cy” in three groups: jazz impro­vis­ers, “non-impro­vis­ing musi­cians,” and non-musi­cians. Jazz play­ers trained to impro­vise not only pre­ferred unex­pect­ed chords in a pro­gres­sion, but their brains react­ed and recov­ered more quick­ly to the unex­pect­ed, sug­gest­ing a high­er degree of cre­ative poten­tial than both clas­si­cal­ly trained musi­cians and non-musi­cians.

“The impro­visato­ry and exper­i­men­tal nature of jazz train­ing,” the study’s authors write, “can encour­age musi­cians to take notes and chords that are out of place, and use them as a piv­ot to tran­si­tion to new tonal and musi­cal ideas.” How­ev­er, the com­par­i­son between the two groups does not place val­ue on one over the oth­er.

While jazz impro­vi­sa­tion may bet­ter teach cre­ativ­i­ty, clas­si­cal train­ing, as neu­ro­sci­en­tist Ardon Shorr argues in his TEDx talk above, may bet­ter train the brain in infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing. These stud­ies show that the effect of music on the brain can­not be stud­ied with­out regard for the dif­fer­ing neu­ro­log­i­cal demands of dif­fer­ent kinds of music, just as the study of lan­guage pro­cess­ing can­not be lim­it­ed to just one lan­guage.

Such stud­ies can also give us an even greater appre­ci­a­tion for the rare musi­cian who can eas­i­ly switch between jazz and clas­si­cal in the same per­for­mance, like the late, great Nina Simone. See her work a Bach-influ­enced fugue into “Love Me or Leave Me,” at the top.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Music in the Brain: Sci­en­tists Final­ly Reveal the Parts of Our Brain That Are Ded­i­cat­ed to Music

New Research Shows How Music Lessons Dur­ing Child­hood Ben­e­fit the Brain for a Life­time

The Neu­ro­science of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instru­ments Are Fun­da­men­tal to Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Rick says:

    Nev­er been crazy about the word “Jazz” but those who play impro­vised or pop music gen­er­al­ly feel the need to be respon­si­ble for know­ing the ins and outs of the entire chord/harmonic sequence of a piece.
    Clas­si­cal stu­dents after years of lessons more con­cerned about fin­ger­ings, dynam­ics, phras­ing etc.
    To use the anal­o­gy of house con­struc­tion they are more con­cerned with the inte­ri­or dec­o­ra­tion, the shade of the out­side paint col­or and the land­scap­ing with­out hav­ing even a rudi­men­ta­ry inter­est in the actu­al fram­ing and wiring of the struc­ture.
    Until I played “jazz” for ten years I nev­er appre­ci­at­ed how advanced the har­monies of Chopin were.
    There’s a lot more there than pret­ty melodies that can be mas­tered by decent tech­ni­cians with facile fin­ger mem­o­ry.

  • William L says:

    Josh says music is the uni­ver­sal lan­guage, and indeed, it is. It is also an amaz­ing con­duit for human expres­sion. I’ve been a musi­cian for over 50 years (I’m 61), of the vari­ety found in the “not clas­si­cal­ly trained” camp. That is I am trained, just not in the Clas­si­cal.

    Here’s my take on why us impro­vis­ar­ios do not relate to our Clas­si­cal adepts across the divide…while music is the best form of human expres­sion, we play­ers go through life express­ing our­selves through our music, while the higly trained clas­si­cal musi­cians spend their lives express­ing anoth­er human’s musi­cal vision.

  • L.L. Holt says:

    Impro­vi­sa­tion played an impor­tant role in the ear­ly years of piano per­for­mance in West­ern Europe. Beethoven in par­tic­u­lar was lion­ized by his con­tem­po­raries for his extra­or­di­nary impro­vi­sa­tions. We get a taste of this in his Dia­bel­li Vari­a­tions, and can only imag­ine the range and imag­i­na­tion of his improv, which tapered off with grow­ing deaf­ness in his 30s.

  • Shawn Muench says:

    Tak­ing this in the abstract– I could see this going oppo­site.

    Clas­si­cal musi­cians have to remem­ber MORE music when per­form­ing– whole sonatas etc.

    (Although jazzers have stores of riffs, chord ten­sions, line clich­es etc– but por­tions of these are gener­ic for any chart, or embed­ded phys­i­cal­ly rather than men­tal­ly). I could argue jazz is most­ly embed­ded phys­i­cal­ly– the know­ing is more implic­it and habit based– ie less men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. I real­ize that sounds dumb because we think of clas­si­cal play­ers as being very rote.

    And jazz is inex­tri­ca­bly style obsessed. Swing is a lot hard­er to con­vey than clas­si­cal aura.

    SO think­ing flex­i­bly I could see clas­si­cal peeps as being more con­cerned with the WHAT and jazzers with the how.

    (I get that clas­si­cal music is par­tic­u­lar aes­thet­i­cal­ly.. and I get that jazz relies more on content/note com­bi­na­tion to make its con­veyance– but for the sake of flex­i­ble thought I brain­stormed the above. Could keep the par­a­digm loose).

  • Zestdigital says:

    Only this post proved that any body is not equal you and your lev­el

  • jazz says:

    Thank you for all your help. Your ser­vice was excel­lent and very FAST. Many thanks for you kind and effi­cient ser­vice. I have already and will def­i­nite­ly con­tin­ue to rec­om­mend your ser­vices to oth­ers in the future.

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