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Where Art, Music, and the Brain Converge

By Beste Tatlican

“Music is not all math,” piano teachers say. Sure, it’s not all math, but there’s definitely some math involved. To me, the computing required isn’t limited to identifying complex rhythmic patterns, while counting though. I think every aspect of music, trying to figure out the appropriate dynamics, making split-second decisions, playing the instrument to fit the vibe of the song, band, or environment, or even bobbing one’s head along with the bass line, is in part due to everything else that goes on inside your brain. The stank face while someone plays the guitar. We enjoy it for a reason. Even sitting at a cafe right now, I find myself analyzing the song playing: its structure, the artist’s choices, and musical ideas are flowing through my head even when I don’t feel like I am consciously doing it.

Ever wonder what it would be like to have jazz musicians and rappers improvise music while lying down inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)? Researchers from Johns Hopkins University wondered. They researched. They anticipated the results with excitement. This is what the intersection of scientific and musical passion is about. We’ve heard before that there has been research done to see which parts of the brain light up when someone listens to music, but the improvisation aspect is a whole other angle.

The study involved the participants, musician volunteers from the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, playing a memorized C major scale using a metronome. Then, they were instructed to play the notes in the same scale, but essentially with a bit more freedom. They could play the notes in any order they wanted, but with a steady rhythm. Quarter notes. After that, they were given a jazz tune to memorize, an original blues melody, that is, and a prerecorded jazz quartet was played in the background. Lastly, they were told to improvise. Improvising a new tune, the quartet continued to play in the background as a complement. The memorized portions served as the control, where those images were separated from the improvised images. These control images helped to find that both the simple and more complex improvisation tasks showed slower activity during improvisation. The part of the brain associated with this slower activity is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is, according to Hopkins Medicine,  “a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides”; planned actions and self-censoring are associated with this part of the prefrontal cortex. This research was conducted using headphones and a keyboard that would not contain any metals, since the instrument used was an MRI machine, and safety is always of primary importance. 

Furthermore, increased activity was found in the medial prefrontal cortex, located at the center of the frontal lobe, which is associated with self-expression and individuality. If everyone played the same riff all the time, life would get boring—which unfortunately, is the case for some beginners, since there is this one particular one that most jazz musicians know, “the lick.” 

I know, you might have just gasped. Everyone sneaks it into their solo, and after a while it starts sounding unoriginal and just welcomes scoffs by the jazz musicians aware of it. But looking at it from a different, augmented, lens, if you will, it’s possible to see that when I say Duke Ellington, a specific vibe comes to mind, and when I say Miles Davis, a completely different image is sparked. Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, the list goes on and on. They each have their own unique sound. When you hear a tune, you are able to pick out who it is and admire the performer’s talent and musical cleverness. 

One takeaway is that improvisation doesn’t only pertain to the jazz side of things. We improvise while conversing, presenting, writing, solving complex problems, painting, and really while doing anything that isn’t strictly rehearsed. We improvise spontaneously without maybe even being aware of it most of the time. The article notes that this trait of human beings was likely essential to the advancement of our species as well. So next time you notice you’re scatting to a jazz tune, or even just coming up with your own solo while singing a song in the car, remember your brain is working with you, and you are doing some serious mental gymnastics! Stay hydrated!

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