Fascinating stuff, this. Above, Gabriela Montero improvises on the Goldberg Variations theme. I’ve always listened to her (and many others) and wondered “How does she do that?” Now Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, has released some information about what improvising can do for the brain, and vice-versa…
To Change Your Brain: Improvise, Improvise, and Improvise Some More
With practice, specific brain circuits are strengthen and music flows
Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, suggest a new study presented at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.
Researchers also found that more experienced improvisers show higher connectivity between three major regions of the brain’s frontal lobe while improvising. This suggests that the generation of meaningful music during improvisation can become highly automated —performed with little conscious attention, reported lead author Ana Pinho, MS, of the Karolinska Institutet.
“Our research explored whether the brain can be trained to achieve greater proficiency in improvisation,” Pinho said. “The lower activity in frontal brain regions that we saw in trained improvisers is interesting, and one could speculate that it is related to the feeling of ‘flow.’ This is the feeling that many musicians report feeling during improvisation – when music comes without conscious thought or effort.”
Improvisational training entails the acquisition of long-term stores of musical patterns and cognitive strategies to aid in their expressive, skillful combination. To test brain activity during improvisation, researchers worked with 39 pianists with a wide range of both classical piano training and training in jazz improvisation. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which images blood flow in different parts of the brain.
While the pianists improvised for brief periods on a 12-key MRI compatible piano keyboard, researchers tracked activity in the frontal lobe. More experienced improvisers showed a combination of higher connectivity and lower overall regional activity during improvisation. Higher connectivity also reflected extensive reorganization of functional connections within the regions of the frontal lobe that control motion.
According to the researchers, the extensive connectivity within the frontal lobe of experienced improvisers may allow the musicians to seamlessly generate meaningful re-combinations of music.
“This study raises interesting questions for future research, including how and to what extent creative behaviors can be learned and automated,” said Pinho.