Friday, January 2, 2009

Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation

Limb CJ, Braun AR 2008 Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.
PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679

This is Your Brain on Jazz: Researchers Use MRI to Study Spontaneity, Creativity
Science Daily, Feb. 28, 2008 - http://www.


Charles J. Limb and Allen R. Braun, researchers from the U.S. National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland (Limb is also connected to Johns Hopkins University) conducted a study to how the brain adapts when jazz pianists improvise music.

Prior to this study the neural processes controlling creativity were largely unidentified. For the purposes of this study musical improvisation was exemplified as a very typical type of spontaneous creative behavior.

The hypothesis was that changes in prefrontal activity would accompany improvisation, with change also occurring in the sensorimotor areas needed to organize the execution of musical ideas and behaviors and in the limbic structures regulating memory and emotional tone.

They asked six male jazz pianists to each play two learned (memorized) sequences and two improvised sequences while lying with the keyboard on their knees in the fMRI machine. The musicians were instructed to use their right hand only and not to move any other part of their bodies. Their playing was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging, a scanning technique whereby various areas of the brain are illuminated, showing stimulation, in response to certain actions. A special keyboard containing non-metallic materials was constructed and the participants listened during the recording with electrostatic ear speakers.

Researchers found that central processes in the lateral portions of the prefrontal cortex which typically inhibit and self-censor behavior were turned off, while, during spontaneous production of new musical material, or improvisation, the area of the medial prefrontal cortex which governs self-expression and individuality became activated. The creative process of improvisation, while based upon rules and structures, can occur outside of conscious awareness and beyond conscious control. Basically, jazz musicians improvise by internally turning off inhibitions and turning up creativity.

The researchers plan to study others types of creativity such as the visual arts and poetry to see if the same findings are seen.


Creativity is a personal thing. In expressing one's own thoughts or artistic endeavours it is necessary to ignore the expectations of others. Jazz artists sometimes play or sing with their eyes closed. It may be their way externally of doing what the brain already does. By closing their eyes and shutting out the outside world, they are delving deep inside to find new avenues of expression and new ways of manipulating the materials at their disposal - melody, rhythm and harmony.

Personally speaking, I found reading this study to be challenging because of the use of technical terms and the amount of detail involved. Science Daily's synopsis was a helpful addition to me.

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