Thursday, September 22, 2011

Inner Sparks: Improvisation and the Brain

Anstead, Alicia. (2011). Inner Sparks. Scientific American 304, 84-87. Retrieved September 19, 2011, from Nature Journals Online


Charles J. Limb, hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, and Allen R. Braun, neurologist at National Institutes of Health, wanted to find out what goes on in the brain when musicians improvise, with the aim of gaining a better understanding of human creativity. They conducted a study on highly skilled jazz musicians, who had to play on a non-magnetic MIDI keyboard on their laps while lying inside an fMRI machine. (A system of mirrors let the musicians see their hands without looking down.)

The researchers found that improvisation generally involves the whole brain. But, interestingly, Limb pointed out that an activity shift occurs in the prefrontal cortex; the lateral prefrontal region, which represents a broad area of the prefrontal cortex and is involved in conscious self-monitoring and self-inhibition, shuts down, while the medial prefrontal region, which is associated with self-expression, turns on.

This, Limb explained, is what expert musicians do, while amateur musicians cannot. He believed that if he could understand what actually changes in the brain to decrease conscious self-monitoring, then he might be able to figure out what gives rise to expert improvisation. This, in turn, may carry implications for teaching improvisation in the classroom.

As a classical musician, I have never improvised on stage. Nevertheless, I feel that I can still relate to the findings of this study. This is because I believe that, regardless of whether the music is improvised or not, the best performances are always characterized by a certain spontaneity that captures the listener’s attention. In other words, it does not matter whether the music one hears was composed two hundred years ago, or it is “being composed” at that moment; when this spontaneity is present, one always gets the sense of the music unfolding in the present moment. I think this is where the magic of musical creativity in performance lies.

Unlike in jazz, however, spontaneity in the performance of Western art music comes from a thorough understanding (and accurate memory) of the score. This means that, paradoxically, classical musicians must practice a great deal before they can afford the luxury of being spontaneous on stage; creativity comes at a high price. Furthermore, they are expected to deliver a highly polished performance that also engages the listener, to be faithful to the composer’s intentions, yet also to demonstrate their artistic integrity in their interpretation. It is obviously not easy to accomplish all of this. I believe this is why some aspiring young classical musicians find themselves in the state of mind of conscious self-inhibition that is unfavourable to self-expression. They become too aware of the weight of hundreds of years of tradition on their shoulders and start doubting if they are “good enough”.

Two years ago, I still vividly remember playing Beethoven’s last piano sonata for a visiting music professor from Germany who had studied with Wilhelm Kempff (a pianist renowned for his interpretation of Beethoven) in a master class setting. Although I had practiced a lot, I got terribly nervous when I had to play and, consequently, made numerous mistakes. But the worst part was that I could not let the music pour forth from me the way I knew I could.

The next day, my teacher, who was also present at the master class, told me something that I have never forgotten. She taught me that, as a performer, one should never try to be “right” or “perfect”. Rather, one should strive, above all else, to be an artist. From years of experience, my teacher understood quite well the danger of self-inhibition and the crucial need to develop the power of self-expression in a creative endeavour. It was indeed interesting to read about a scientific study that confirms what experienced musicians already know.

1 comment:

Sonya said...

"It was indeed interesting to read about a scientific study that confirms what experienced musicians already know." Chairat, this seems to have been a major theme of what we have learned over the past few months: as musicians, we intuitively know quite a bit about music-making and the effects it has on us, but we don't yet have all the studies needed to back up our claims in the scientific community.

Your post also struck a chord with me (pun somewhat intended) because a big part of what my voice teacher has been working on with me this semester is trying to reduce the amount of self-monitoring and self-inhibition apparent in my performances. I do have experience improvising in a performance setting from playing violin in a band during my undergrad, but I haven't focused on improvisation in years. Based on the study you have brought to our attention, I will make an effort to reintroduce improvisation into my practice time at the very least. If I can find a way rehearse turning on the medial prefrontal region and reducing the activity of the lateral prefrontal cortex through improvisation, maybe I will be able to translate that into my performances of rehearsed pieces.

On a related note, I'm not sure whether Canadian music educators use the National Standards for Music Education set out by NAfME (formerly MENC), but I studied them in great detail while working toward my BMus at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY. Notice which standard is third on the list:

1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.
5. Reading and notating music.
6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music.
7. Evaluating music and music performances.
8. Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.
9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.
(from )

These standards are intended for use in K-12 music classrooms, but could and perhaps should be applied more universally. I'll certainly start to hold myself more accountable to them now that I've had a reminder of their importance through an exploration of the study you have shared with us.