Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018, Max Planck Society
When the scientists asked the pianists to play a harmonically unexpected chord within a standard chord progression, the jazz pianists' brains started to replan the actions faster than those of the classical pianists. This was measured by EEG (electroencephalography) sensors on the back of the head, which detected the brain signals in the related brain regions responsible for action planning. Credit: MPI CBS

Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like a chosen practically impossible thing [...] It's [because of] the circuitry. Your system demands different circuitry for either of those two things." Where non-specialists tend to think that it should not be too challenging for a professional musician to switch between styles of music, such as jazz and classical, it is actually not as easy as one would assume, even for people with decades of experience.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig demonstrated that there could be a neuroscientific explanation for this phenomenon: They observed that while playing the , different processes occur in jazz and classical pianists' brains, even when performing the same piece.

"The reason could be due to the different demands these two styles pose on the musicians—be it to skilfully interpret a classical piece or to creatively improvise in jazz. Thereby, different procedures may have established in their brains while playing the piano which makes switching between the styles more difficult", says Daniela Sammler, neuroscientist at MPI CBS and leader of the current study about the different activities in jazz and classical pianists.

One crucial distinction between the two groups of musicians is the way in which they plan movements while playing the piano. Regardless of the style, pianists, in principle, first have to know what they are going to play—meaning the keys they have to press—and, subsequently, how to play—meaning the fingers they should use. It is the weighting of both planning steps, which is influenced by the genre of the .

In the study all pianists got to see a hand on a screen which played a sequence of chords on a piano scattered with mistakes in harmonies and fingering. The professional pianists had to imitate this hand and react accordingly to the irregularities while their brain signals were registered with EEG sensors on the head. Credit: MPI CBS

According to this, classical pianists focus their playing on the second step, the "How". For them it is about playing pieces perfectly regarding their technique and adding personal expression. Therefore, the choice of fingering is crucial. Jazz pianists, on the other hand, concentrate on the "What". They are always prepared to improvise and adapt their playing to create unexpected harmonies.

"Indeed, in the jazz pianists we found neural evidence for this flexibility in planning harmonies when playing the piano", states Roberta Bianco, first author of the study. "When we asked them to play a harmonically unexpected chord within a standard chord progression, their brains started to replan the actions faster than classical pianists. Accordingly, they were better able to react and continue their performance." Interestingly, the classical pianists performed better than the others when it came to following unusual fingering. In these cases their brains showed stronger awareness of the fingering, and consequently they made fewer errors while imitating the chord sequence.

The scientists investigated these relations in 30 professional pianists; half of them were specialized in jazz for at least two years, the other half were classically trained. All pianists got to see a hand on a screen which played a sequence of chords on a piano scattered with mistakes in harmonies and fingering. The professional pianists had to imitate this hand and react accordingly to the irregularities while their brain signals were registered with EEG (Electroencephalography) sensors on the head. To ensure that there were no other disturbing signals, for instance acoustic sound, the whole experiment was carried out in silence using a muted piano.

"Through this study, we unravelled how precisely the brain adapts to the demands of our surrounding environment", says Sammler. It also makes clear that it is not sufficient to just focus on one genre of music if we want to fully understand what happens in the brain when we perform music—as it was done so far by just investigating Western . "To obtain a bigger picture, we have to search for the smallest common denominator of several genres", Sammler explains. "Similar to research in language: To recognise the universal mechanisms of processing language we also cannot limit our research to German."

Explore further: Efficiently reading piano musical scores by analyzing geometrical information in musical notes

More information: R. Bianco et al, Musical genre-dependent behavioural and EEG signatures of action planning. A comparison between classical and jazz pianists, NeuroImage (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.12.058

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12 comments

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Parsec
not rated yet Jan 16, 2018
I wonder what other areas of human performance this entirely unexpected result can be applied to? Different dance styles? Different martial art styles? I am not suggesting that I know the answers, but this article does make posing the questions interesting.
DonGateley
not rated yet Jan 16, 2018
Please consider Chick Corea who is equally adept at both. The name of the album that best shows his classical chops is "The Mozart Sessions" with Bobby Mcferrin conducting. My absolute favorite Mozart is his performance on that album of Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 23 in A Major. Perhaps, however, that is because of the Jazz elements they bring to the work which are too subtle for me to hear directly.
ddaye
not rated yet Jan 16, 2018
The jazz musician is composing at the same time they're playing. And unlike classical composing, they're composing a part in response to and to fit in with the ongoing composing of the other players. I can play memorized classical music well. But it feels like there's nothing but empty space in the chunk of brain that improvises. Part of that composition requires thinking ahead about what your body and instrument are able to do --you're not allowed the full range of musical sounds that could fit in with the other players.
Ojorf
4 / 5 (1) Jan 17, 2018
I wonder what other areas of human performance this entirely unexpected result can be applied to? Different dance styles? Different martial art styles? I am not suggesting that I know the answers, but this article does make posing the questions interesting.


It is not really styles but two different processes, being precise/accurate vs being flexible/creative.
I imagine it would apply to dance.
In MA, probably the difference between following a kata vs a fight.
moranity
1 / 5 (1) Jan 17, 2018
Didn't Yehudi Menuhin play both jazz and classical to the highest standard? i know it's violin, but the above restriction should apply regardless of instrument.
ThomasQuinn
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 17, 2018
Didn't Yehudi Menuhin play both jazz and classical to the highest standard? i know it's violin, but the above restriction should apply regardless of instrument.


Not really. He played with Stephane Grappelli, who was a jazz-violinist, on tightly-arranged tracks. It may have *sounded* like jazz, but Menuhin played pre-composed material, so it's not really comparable.

On a sidenote, I think the brain processes in a jazz musician while improvising and a classical composer while composing might be broadly similar, though not identical.
vlaaing peerd
not rated yet Jan 17, 2018

I think the brain processes in a jazz musician while improvising and a classical composer while composing might be broadly similar, though not identical.


I think composing is quite different as you have plenty of time and there is no time limit in which you have to strike the next note. Also in composing you usually construct it as the whole piece and not make up each tiny phrase after another.

As an improvising musician- I notice that when improvising I mostly refer back to known and studied phrases and melodies which existed in my mind long before I ever started to play the piece. Sometimes "the moment" changes the phrase slightly or even better, when I make a mistake leads me to quickly thinking of something new but in most cases I revert to known information. A bit like a toolbox.

So I think improvising is more a process of quickly reacting to a given situation and grabbing the right tool while composing really is a process of creation and thought.
vlaaing peerd
not rated yet Jan 17, 2018
I wonder what other areas of human performance this entirely unexpected result can be applied to?


I think it applies to improvising vs perfecting in general. I would not be susprised if improvising musicians would do well with improvising in daily life with the main difference that the expression of it may require different skills (e.g. striking a note instead of making a dance move).
wailuku1943
not rated yet Jan 17, 2018
It's amusing that the report begins with a Keith Jarrett (BTW not "Jarret") considering that he's recorded works by Handel, Shostakovich, Barber, and J.S. Bach (Goldberg Variations, and others).

True, he was talking about a mixed concert, not a mix in his life's work. Changing gears in a concert isn't the same as changing gears when choosing a new recording project.

But in any case, the quote is misleading.

Mystertim
1 / 5 (1) Jan 17, 2018
A couple things bother me. The article speaks of the pianists training, not talent.

The scientists investigated these relations in 30 professional pianists; half of them were specialized in jazz for at least two years, the other half were classically trained.

Trained for how long, where and with whom?

Second, I have never met a piano player worth their chops that couldn't switch between styles almost seamlessly during concert.
dr_erickson
not rated yet Jan 22, 2018
Benny Goodman could do classical, although he was criticized by the purists for using vibrato...

Type in "Benny Goodman Mozart" in YouTube search window for an audio example.

Spam filer would not allow posting link, sorry...
chaman
not rated yet Feb 12, 2018
The reference to Miles Davis—and the implicit comparison to Mozart—in the title of the story is wrong. Miles wasn't a pianist. He played trumpet. Divinely.

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