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Charles Limb and Allen Braun at Johns Hopkins have recently published a study on the internal characteristics and functions of improvisation in music. The study, “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation,” uses a functional MRI to look at the neural activity of Jazz musicians, specifically pianists, during improvisation. Several controls were used to distinguish a normal predetermined musical environment from an improvisational environment. Compared to activity in the normal environment, improvisation required a completely different subset of psychological processes which were generated independently of central processes.

Such a pattern may reflect a combination of psychological processes required for spontaneous improvisation, in which internally motivated, stimulus-independent behaviors unfold in the absence of central processes that typically mediate self-monitoring and conscious volitional control of ongoing performance. Changes in prefrontal activity during improvisation were accompanied by widespread activation of neocortical sensorimotor areas (that mediate the organization and execution of musical performance) as well as deactivation of limbic structures (that regulate motivation and emotional tone).

Improvisation seems to be one of the most mysterious aspects of the linguistic processes at play during musical performance. This study is of particular pertinence to the communicative aspect of performance as Jazz musicians (et al) actively communicate in abstract and specific terms with each other and their audiences. Improvisation invokes a spontaneity within this communication, parallel but according to the study, independent of the central functions required to simply play a song. What might the capability to improvise say about language as a specialized phenotype?

    Limb, C.J., Braun, A.R., Greene, E. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE, 3(2), e1679. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001679
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