Improvisation in Music is Independent of Central Brain Functions

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

2 thoughts on “Improvisation in Music is Independent of Central Brain Functions

  1. Thanks for citing this very interesting report, which could provide some real insights on the relation between musical performance and aspects of language. It’s important to understand, however, that most jazz musicians do NOT improvise collectively. Typically one will “take a solo” while the others provide a relatively standard backup of chords, bass lines and drum patterns. They are not necessarily “talking” to one another, so the analogy with the conversational aspect of language shouldn’t be assumed. Of course, in certain types of jazz improv, such as New Orleans style and also certain types of “avant-garde” jazz, improvisation does have a “conversational” quality, so it would be useful to know more about the context of the improvisation being studied. Presumably this is made clear in the paper, which I have not yet had a chance to read.

    The relation between music and (verbal) language is often misundersood, by the way. In most cases, in the great majority of societies, linguistic “performance” is far more “improvisational” and far more “creative” than musical performance, which is very often almost completely predetermined and even stereotyped, with only very limited opportunities for the performer to be “creative” in the usual sense.

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