What happens when you put a jazz improviser in an MRI scanner?

by | Dec 4, 2017 | Articles | 9 comments

I thought I would share this very interesting video with you today.

It’s a scientific study by medical researcher Charles Limb on what neurologically happens in the brain when you improvise, as opposed to playing pre-learned musical material from memory.

What was the scientific method for this study?

The answer:

Putting experienced jazz improvisers in an MRI scanner to monitor their brain function, as they played jazz on a magnetically resistant MIDI keyboard lying down, whilst trying to keep their head as still as possible.

No easy task for a pianist. (Keith Jarrett comes to mind!)

Although it’s a preliminary study, I think it does shed light on what we could learn from an experienced improviser’s brain functioning.

This is a couple of big takeaways I got from the video:

1. When an experienced jazz musician improvises music (as opposed to playing pre-learned material), areas of the brain associated with self-expression become activated, whilst areas associated with self-inhibition reduce in function.

I found this fascinating as it correlates with my own and others anecdotal experience that improvised music flows best when you are able to transcend your own self-monitoring, be prepared to explore musically and to allow mistakes without inhibition.

2.Improvised music activates areas of the brain associated with language learning

The idea of jazz functioning as a spoken language is often used by jazz performers and teachers. In fact, this concept heavily influenced the way I designed my Fundamentals of Jazz Guitar Improvisation course that I’m currently taking students through at the moment. In the course, students learn a collection of often used jazz ‘words’ and phrases from general jazz vocabulary, and then learn how to string these basic musical words together in various ways as they improvise.

Now the exciting bit:

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Anyway, over to YOU. What do you think about this video?

Let me know below.

Greg O’Rourke,

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  1. Bruce

    Thanks for posting this Greg. I’m already familiar with the work through my research on creativity and learning. Improvisation is one of the areas I focus on, primarily as a paradigmatic case of simultaneous creative process and product. Without getting too esoteric, British philosopher Gilbert Ryle felt that all cognition is improvisation, and there seems to be something to this now that we have more fine-grained data from neuroscience, machine learning etc. Everything looks different (and possibly makes a lot more sense) if improvisation is a natural – maybe essential – human capacity that is highly refined in (say) jazz improvisation, rather than an exotic capacity defined at the exemplary level. There’s a plausible argument that children start out as natural improvisors but get that washed out to some degree through formal education, then struggle as adults with a process that now seems difficult and maybe even alien. If that’s right, people who continue to improvise without interruption (for example, those who study jazz!!!) end up being “rare” simply because everyone else dropped away. This does challenge deeply rooted romantic ideas about innate genius, but those don’t hold up for a lot of reasons beyond the improvisation discussion.

    • Greg O'Rourke

      Fascinating insights Bruce – thanks for your comments!

    • Bong Manago

      Thanks for the confirmation about what I’ve suspected for a long time. I just had what I believe was a mild stroke and it markedly affected my right side of the body. i noticed I couldn’t pick the strings smoothly and spontaneously as before. But I know I can regain my old form with constant practice and determination. Thanks for all the tidbits on how to have a pleasant attitude.

  2. Duff

    Really interesting to see differences between solo improvisation and trading 4s. Clearly the latter is a conversation as you’re trying to integrate your improvisation with that of others, so it makes ‘sense’. It would be interesting to see how much of their data is based on the music being expressed on the piano.

  3. ken niehoff

    Inhibition reduced and expression enhanced with improvisation. For me the interesting question is the intersection between memorization and improvisation. Wes Montgomery and George Benson were both given guitars when they were young and started playing “jazz” and copying other players. The years of all that jazz vocabulary in their neurons can be “scrambled” to allow inprovision on the spot and we witness great jazz. So, the improvisation will only be as good as the previsous jazz neural input; to improvise we must file the licks away.

  4. Bill Ward

    Greg, that was a fun presentation to watch. It certainly makes sense that the brain activity and function would have to really “ramp up” for the improvisation versus memorized product. Comparing Jazz musicians with “rappers” my first thought is Rappers would have a bigger challenge and their brain activity may spike higher because I do not know they have as many organized things and knowledge they can call on like an experienced jazz musician. OF course I know nothing about rapping so maybe they do have lots of fundamental knowledge and skills to do this. Fun stuff!

  5. Lou

    Thanks for that link Greg . . .

    Fascinating stuff !
    Especially the ‘language’ connection with improvisation.



  6. Phil Day

    Fascinating, I’ve been in a technical background all my working life and this is the first time I can see an comparison between the learned and creative actions of the brain.

  7. Vagelis Germanos

    To express your self, has to do about knowing yourself. These two facts are the same. Music helps to know and express oneself. No doubt, it needs discipline, organisation of study, but we must always leave a window open for things that come from deeply inside us (past and future are two of them), and have to do about experiences we have lived, hopes and more (other peoples hopes and experiences). Mixing them together, the brain is free to answer musically in every circumstance, because the brain, the whole nervous system (conscious and subconscious) is the inventor of everything we live and realise.
    Brain is not a computer. It makes computers in order to help him doing the hard work, like servants. I believe to the enormous strength of the human brain, but I believe also to its limits. Nature is above human brain. Creativity has to do with love (discipline) and freedom.


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