Reference: Minkel, J. (2008). The roots of creativity. Scientific American: Mind, 19(3), 8.
Review: This article looking at jazz musicians and improvisation is quite short but interesting. It discusses a recent study conducted by the researchers at the National Institute of Health. The study asked six professional jazz musicians to memorize in a few days a new piece of music they had never seen before. The musicians then played the score plus an improvisation in the same key while an MRI machine scanned their brain. Results showed that the improvisation passages elicited stronger activity in the “medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain active in autobiographical storytelling, among other varieties of self-expression.” These results support the altered state notion, as “activity dipped in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (an area linked to planning and self-censorship), which, the researchers point out, is similar to what happens during dreams.” The researchers say that the same patterns may show in all kinds of improvisation, whether solving a problem or “rifting on a topic of interest.”
Reflection: I found this article quite interesting. As a musician we are faced with the challenge of improvising almost everyday in our practice at home. Singers create and add ornaments to pieces and pianists develop new warm-ups to give a couple of examples. It makes sense that improvising uses the same area of the brain as dreaming. If you think about improvisation, while playing, your performance can get stuck and lose flow. It’s only when the mind is free, and able to play, that one can truly improvise to their full potential. So often teachers ask students to improvise in the secondary music classroom. Most students find this task daunting, thinking too much about improvising that they cannot achieve this “altered-state notion.” As a teacher, one could take from this article that students must work step by step towards improvisation. Mastering every step with help until the crutch is no longer needed.