Friday, October 23, 2009

Brain and improvisation

This website features a study carried out at. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and musician volunteers they discovered that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow.
Because fMRI uses powerful magnets, the researchers designed the unconventional keyboard with no iron-containing metal parts that the magnet could attract. They also used fMRI-compatible headphones that would allow musicians to hear the music they generate while they’re playing it.
Each musician first took part in four different exercises designed to separate out the brain activity involved in playing simple memorized piano pieces and activity while improvising their music. While lying in the fMRI machine with the special keyboard propped on their laps, the pianists all began by playing the C-major scale, a well-memorized order of notes that every beginner learns. With the sound of a metronome playing over the headphones, the musicians were instructed to play the scale, making sure that each volunteer played the same notes with the same timing.
In the second exercise, the pianists were asked to improvise in time with the metronome. They were asked to use quarter notes on the C-major scale, but could play any of these notes that they wanted.
Next, the musicians were asked to play an original blues melody that they all memorized in advance, while a recorded jazz quartet that complemented the tune played in the background. In the last exercise, the musicians were told to improvise their own tunes with the same recorded jazz quartet.
Since the brain areas activated during memorized playing are parts that tend to be active during any kind of piano playing, the researchers subtracted those images from ones taken during improvisation. Left only with brain activity unique to improvisation, the scientists saw strikingly similar patterns, regardless of whether the musicians were doing simple improvisation on the C-major scale or playing more complex tunes with the jazz quartet.
The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview.

The reason why I found this experiment relevant is because 5 days ago I did a first session of an improvisation workshop that I am leading. The workshop was directed to first year bachelor students who had no or little experience in improvisation; the objective of the sessions, the second being tomorrow, was and still is, start breaking into the musical faculties that allow for sensible music making on the stop. Before the first session, I was expecting that the action research would inform me on what level of complexity the exercises should be, and also, on the balance between drill and creativity.
To my surprise I noted something that this article on-line somehow clarifies. I noticed that the students are not used to, or have not developed the faculty to, think in different patterns, or rather without patterns. I noticed a few things:
1) a tendency to remain in the comfort zone even when this implies to do something different from the guideline of the exercise.
2) a great fear to do something “wrong” or “make mistakes”. As I see it, improvisation as a skill is quite simple, probably the challenge is to learn to deactivate the censorship system.
3) I somehow got the impression that in order to do the kind of exercises I was trying to do, the students would have needed some more liberating experiences in their musical upbringing. I also, felt that I got better musical results when I did this kind of activities with 10-12 year olds, probably because they were less inhibited.
This article has been of great value to me because I used to think that creativity in the liberating sense, did not necessarily have much to do with improvisation,; I still think that improvisation is more about sensibility that liberation; however, I am starting to think that in order to get the mined ready to allow for sensibility, a great deal of liberating and un-inhibiting experience may prepare the territory better.


rnorman said...

During my undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria, I took a course on “free improvisation” with the oboe professor, Sandra Pohran-Dawkins. This course was not a jazz improvisation course, but rather a 20th-century music improvisation course. As students we were encouraged to create sounds together off of a page, eventually incorporating extended techniques specific to each individual instrument. We were paired in different groupings, and in each class were asked to get up in front of everybody and perform, on the spot. There were absolutely no guidelines. We had to create our own form, our own harmony, our own melody (if, indeed, there was any melody to be had.)

At first, I found this prospect to be terrifying. How would I know what to do? And what if I sounded bad? But the more the course progressed, the more I started to understand how meaningful improvisation is to a musician. When we remove ourselves from the page, we start to listen more, and to understand more. We start to function with our fellow musicians as a unit, rather than an individual on a specific part. And, as the posted article suggests, the act of improvising caused me to lose a lot of inhibition, both while improvising and while playing from a page of music.

I think that learning to improvise, using whatever medium, is essential to a musician’s education and growth. And it is a traditional practice, something that centuries ago would have been second-nature to musicians.

I do have a question. How does a music teacher reach out to an age group that is not pre-disposed to “embarrass themselves” and release inhibition? Augusto, I agree with you that working with younger children in this regard is much easier, as they seem to not have as many inhibitions. But what about teenagers, and young adults? I will freely admit that when I first took Sandra Pohran-Dawkins class, I was very tentative, and not very keen to try anything in front of my peers. I’m glad that I did, and that now I seem to have gotten over this fear, but how would I help others overcome this obstacle?

Liana Henkel said...

I watched the W-Five documentary “The Musical Brain” presented tonight on the Bravo Channel. I was intrigued by work done by Dr. Charles J. Limb and was going to write about what I learned about him and then noticed your post which is the same research.

I found a video on youtube on Dr. Limb’s “Bach Project” in which he placed musician, John Bayless, into an fMRI machine and recorded brain activities of Bayless playing a small keyboard he took with him into the fMRI machine (well, the piano went up to the edge of circular entrance of the machine and you could only see only Bayless’ hands on the piano). Limb noted that ‘musicians and non-musicians have different kinds of brain activity and anatomies … music changes the brain itself and how it works’.

Limb recorded the brain images when Bayless played ‘regular’ memorized piano pieces without improvisation and then compared to the differences in the brain images when Bayless improvised. Dr. Limb noted that during improvisation, the ‘area of the brain related to self expression went up and the area of the brain that inhibits went down’ (just as you noted in your post).

So, if an individual struggles with improvisation, does that suggest that perhaps the reverse happens; does the area of the brain that inhibits not change or even increase, potentially subduing the self-expression area? My personal take on this is (and others I am sure) that the struggle that a musician may feel with improvisation is from intense rote musical experience and when asked to improvise, she/he becomes paralyzed. Musicians trained in the western-classical way are often taught to strictly adhere to the composer’s work without any allowance for personal nuance or mistakes. We learn not to trust ourselves in creation and improvisation, and/or we aren’t taught the skills we need to gain confidence in improvisation. This is not everyone’s experience; however, I think this places greater responsibility on music educators to nurture a confidence in students’ personal creative ability, whether young or older, whether in a public or private educational setting.

I also think that movement is important in playing and creating music yet we are trained to be so properly restricted in our music (in a classical education setting). I found a similar response as you when I taught a class that involved dancing and moving with actions to music. Not all students were cautious but many were hesitant or embarrassed to dance around the room like they were 7 or 8 years old. But I think it is safe to say that liked it once they had ‘permission’ to respond openly to the music with movement. I am enrolled in a Dalcroze workshop in a couple of weeks and am excited about what I will learn about the body and movement in music. In my opinion, improvisation and movement in music are potentially part of the same creative sphere. I wonder if Dr. Limb would see the same changes in brain activity in regards to creative movement as he did with creative improvisation in music.