Study of jazz musicians reveals how the brain processes improvisations

April 29, 2011
This image shows amygdala activation during listening to improvised melodies (compared to listening to imitated melodies). Credit: Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

(Medical Xpress) -- A pianist is playing an unknown melody freely without reading from a musical score. How does the listener’s brain recognise if this melody is improvised or if it is memorized? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig investigated jazz musicians to discover which brain areas are especially sensitive to features of improvised behaviour. Among these are the amygdala and a network of areas known to be involved in the mental simulation of behaviour. Furthermore, the ability to correctly recognise improvisations was not only related to the musical experience of a listener but also to his ability to take the perspective of someone else.

The ability to discriminate spontaneous from planned (rehearsed) behaviour is important when inferring others’ intentions in everyday situations, for example, when judging whether someone’s behaviour is calculated and intended to deceive. In order to examine such basic mechanisms of social abilities in controlled settings, Peter Keller, head of the research group “Music Cognition and Action” at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Sciences, Leipzig and his research associate Annerose Engel investigate musical constellations ranging from solos and duos to large musical ensembles. In a recent study, they investigated the brain activity of jazz musicians while these musicians listened to short excerpts of improvised melodies or rehearsed versions of the same melodies. The listeners judged whether each heard melody was improvised.

“Musical improvisations are more variable in their loudness and timing, most likely due to irregularities in force control associated with fluctuations in certainty about upcoming actions—i.e., when spontaneously deciding what to play—during improvised musical performance”, explains Peter Keller. The amygdala, part of the limbic system, was more active while listening to real improvisations and was sensitive to the fluctuations of loudness and timing in the melodies. Thus, the amygdala seems to be involved in the detection of spontaneous behaviour, which is consistent with studies showing an involvement of this structure when stimuli are difficult to predict, novel or ambiguous in their meaning.

If a melody was judged as being improvised, regardless of whether this was in fact the case, stronger activity was found in a network which is known to be involved in the covert simulation of actions. This network comprised the frontal operculum, the pre-supplementary area and the anterior insula.

This image shows increased activation in the frontal operculum (left), the pre-supplementary area (middle) and the anterior insula (right) when listening to melodies judged as being improvised. Credit: MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

“We know today that during perception of actions, similar brain areas are active as during the execution of the same action”, explains Annerose Engel. “This supports the evaluation of other people’s behaviour in order to form expectations and predict future behaviour.” If a melody is perceived as being more difficult to predict, for example, because of fluctuations in loudness and timing, stronger activity is most likely to be elicited in this specialised network.

A further observation the researchers made may be related to this: Not only musical experience but also the capacity to take someone else’s perspective played an important role in judging spontaneity. Jazz musicians who had more musical expertise in playing the piano and playing with other musicians, as well as those who more often described themselves as trying to put themselves in someone else’s shoes were best at recognizing whether a melody was improvised or not.

Explore further: Childhood music lessons may provide lifelong boost in brain functioning

More information: A. Engel, P. E. Keller: The perception of musical spontaneity in improvised and imitated jazz performances. Frontiers in Psychology 2:83. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00083

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Study documents range of challenging meditation experiences

May 24, 2017

Meditation is increasingly being marketed as a treatment for conditions such as pain, depression, stress and addiction, and while many people achieve therapeutic goals, other meditators encounter a much broader range of experiences—sometimes ...

The surprising science of fidgeting

May 24, 2017

Hand-held toys known as "fidget spinners" – marketed as "stress relievers" – have become so popular and distracting in classrooms that they are now being banned in many schools. And it's not just kids who like to fidget. ...

How listening to music in a group influences depression

May 24, 2017

Listening to music together with others has many social benefits, including creating and strengthening interpersonal bonds. It has previously been shown that enjoying music in a group setting has an impact on social relationships, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 29, 2011
Did they look for any differences between the neurophysiology of naturally talented musicians and those that were trained by rote ? There is a difference between a musical polymath and a classically trained musician. I'm curious about this because I am a polymath, I can pick up any instrument and improvise over any score, but yet I know professional players that are constrained to one instrument.
not rated yet Apr 29, 2011
Let's attempt to help these researchers.
What is original behavior?
What is a 'wrong' note (sound) during improvisation?

Let's make this interesting. Since estrogen in the brain is responsible for incoming sound signal processes and interpretation, what is the minimum threshold of estrogen in the brain to maintain the perception of hearing?

Yep. You guys are all ears now.
not rated yet Apr 30, 2011
The doi link does not work but this direct one to the paper's abstract does and contains links to a free article pdf and downloadable movies

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.