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Not With The Band: Science Demonstrates That Improvisation In Music Is Real Communication


your brain on jazz

I hate when people make a total dichotomy between art and science, the old and preconceived idea that if you are the artistic kind, you can’t be the scientific kind and vice-versa. I am equally interested by these two aspects of human nature, as they complete each other and help us understand the world at two different levels. That’s why I am always fascinated when scientific researchers make a link with art,… music in this case. Charles Limb is an Associate Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, but he is also a musician at the Peabody Conservatory of Music
 Johns Hopkins, so he is a perfect example of what I am talking about.

In his new study, entitled ‘Neural Substrates of Interactive Musical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of ‘Trading Fours’ in Jazz’, which was published in the journal PLOS One, he looked at the brain of jazz musicians and tried to understand how creativity works. Why jazz musicians? Because they improvise a lot contrarily to other musicians, and they are constantly engaged in pure creativity in situ. Here is what Limb found out: the fMRI scans of jazz musicians’ brains, recorded while they were improvising, revealed that the areas of the brain responsible for syntax processing were very active, something not noticeable when musicians played a memorized musical exchange. These areas are involved to interpret structure of sentences. Furthermore, there was a deactivation of brain areas directly linked to semantic cognition or if you prefer, the meaning of words.

This new study led to the conclusion that syntactic processing areas are not specific for language but are involved in a larger domain of communication, as there is a neural overlap between music and language processing.

‘Until now, studies of how the brain processes auditory communication between two individuals have been done only in the context of spoken language’, said Limb to Science Daily, ‘But looking at jazz lets us investigate the neurological basis of interactive, musical communication as it occurs outside of spoken language.’

‘We’ve shown in this study that there is a fundamental difference between how meaning is processed by the brain for music and language. Specifically, it’s syntactic and not semantic processing that is key to this type of musical communication. Meanwhile, conventional notions of semantics may not apply to musical processing by the brain.’

Thus improvisation in music is real communication, but according to Charles Limb, if words are used for a precise meaning when we speak, improvisation in music is not about this precise meaning, it is communication without words, showing that language and music have different purpose and goal. The fact that semantic processing areas are constantly used in language but deactivated in case of improvised musical exchanges, shows how we process music and language differently. Limb suggests that music is all about conveying and sharing emotions rather than direct meaning. The meaning in musical improvisation is totally vague, and imprecise. But he doesn’t want to stop there, he has goals which he calls ‘questions of a lifetime’, as he wants to understand how creativity occurs in the brain, how do we acquire creativity? By staying child-like if I quote Picasso, and yes, it is also something that interests Limb as he wants to understand why a child is so creative and why we lose more or less this ability when we grow up. So many questions still unanswered!

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