A new, scientific study is out that investigates changes in the brain when creating original music (improvising) on a piano keyboard vs. playing an existing song by note. Charles Limb, a brain scientist at Johns Hopkins looked at the whole brain, and found more than 40 areas that were active during improvisation. And yes, the subjects actually played an electronic keyboard while in an MRI machine.
They found that the prefrontal cortex area of the brain changes greatly when improvising as compared to playing memorized music. And the part of the brain that "turns off" is the part that's linked to inhibition. He said, "So during creative playing, you get this combination of self-expression with the absence of conscious self-monitoring. We think that's how jazz musicians are able to improvise."
One of his jazz pianist subjects expressed that when you're censoring yourself, playing the notes feels physically different. "It's as if your brain is fighting with your central nervous system and trying to control your movements. But when you're in the zone, it just feels easy. It feels just like breathing or talking. It feels so natural it almost seems not profound."
In the second part of the study, somehow Limb (a pianist himself) managed to play a duet with the subject in the MRI. As they were trading musical phrases back and forth (a popular technique in improvisational jazz, called "Trading Fours"), other areas of the brain began to be activated - areas known to be responsible for understanding language and in speaking. It seems to provide a strong link between neurobiology of music and language.
Now, none of this is probably news to music educators but it's always good to have science back you up.
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