Neuroscience & Jazz Improvisation: How Improvisation Shapes Creativity and What Happens Inside Our Brain

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.

via Futu­ri­ty

Relat­ed Con­tent:

This is Your Brain on Jazz Impro­vi­sa­tion: The Neu­ro­science of Cre­ativ­i­ty

The Secret Link Between Jazz and Physics: How Ein­stein & Coltrane Shared Impro­vi­sa­tion and Intu­ition in Com­mon

Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

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

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  • Sal Ciccio says:

    There is no dif­fer­ence between improv. and extem­po­ra­ne­ous speach.The sound gen­er­at­ing method is dif­fer­ent. Lit­tle chil­dren will match pitch­es and melodies as eas­i­ly as they learn so each. Add key­board access and not­ed that the major­i­ty of chil­dren ha e nat­ur­al per­fect pitch…

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