Training in musical improvisation may teach your brain to think differently

July 5, 2018 by Kim Martineau, Columbia University
Training in musical improvisation may teach your brain to think differently
Skilled improvisers were better than musicians with limited improvisational experience at distinguishing between chords that can be used interchangeably in a piece of music and those that cannot, says a new study led by Andrew Goldman, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University (pictured). Credit: Andrew Goldman

John Coltrane and Jerry Garcia became improvising legends for their ability to mix musical elements on the fly. How the brain accomplishes such feats of creativity under pressure remains a mystery, though practice is increasingly thought to play a pivotal role.

Now, in a new study in the journal Psychology of Music, Columbia University researchers show that skilled improvisers are better than musicians with limited improvisational experience at distinguishing between chords that can be used interchangeably in a piece of music and chords that cannot. Further, when the improvisers recognized a chord unsuitable for substitution, their brains showed a pattern of electrical activity distinct from non-improvising musicians.

"It turns out that the degree to which we can predict how musicians respond to different types of musical substitution has nothing to do with how much they practice, but the way they practice," said the study's senior author, Paul Sajda, a biomedical engineer at Columbia Engineering and a member of Columbia's Data Science Institute. "Improvisational practice seems to reinforce how the brain represents different types of musical structures."

The researchers asked 40 musicians to listen to a series of chord progressions randomly interspersed with two types of chord variations: one from the same functional class (say, a similar chord with its notes inverted), and one from outside the class (say, a major chord juxtaposed against a minor chord). The improvisers, most of them trained in jazz, identified the oddball chords unsuitable for substitution faster and more accurately than the mostly classically-trained musicians with limited improvisational practice. How well they performed, the study found, was largely predicted by their level of improvisation experience.

Improvisation is hardly confined to music—it underlies much of daily life. Faced with a delayed train, you might decide to walk or take the bus; a missing ingredient, the closest alternative. With a flexible mindset, a creative solution is often at hand. With music, as with cooking, the trick is knowing the rules of substitution, says the study's lead author, Andrew Goldman, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbian.

He explains: Having run out of lemons, an improvising chef will reach for a lime knowing that citrus fruit will work better in the recipe than, say, a banana, much as an improvising musician knows that a chord with a similar harmonic function will work better than one with a different function. In Goldman's experiments, the improvisers were quick to differentiate between the musical equivalent of easy-to-substitute limes and hard-to-substitute bananas.

In a 2015 study of varsity baseball players, Sajda, the biomedical engineer, found that experts categorized pitches in much the same way. The experts were better than non-ball players at making split-second calls distinguishing a fast ball from say, a curve ball, and deciding whether to swing. This insight became the basis for deCervo, a tech startup founded by two former students of Sajda's who are now using brain-training exercises to improve batting performance.

In a related study with Barnard College dance professor Colleen Thomas, Goldman compared how people with varying levels of training in dance, improvisational dance, and Contact Improvisation—a form of improvised dance with partners—responded as they watched Thomas perform everyday actions and dance moves. In still unpublished results, researchers found that the dancers, despite not moving themselves, showed greater activity in the brain's motor cortex which controls movement. The effect was strongest in those with Contact Improvisation training.

Training in musical improvisation may teach your brain to think differently
Dancers with training in Contact Improvisation —a form of improvisational dance with partners — showed greater activity in the brain's motor cortex than dancers with limited improvisational training, researchers have found. Here, Barnard's Colleen Thomas (right) leads an experimental subject through a dance move. Credit: Andrew Goldman

Goldman was drawn to improvisation from his earliest piano lessons as a child growing up in southern California. "I would take the music I learned, transposing, changing the mode from major to minor, or mixing other musical elements together," he says. Later, as a composer and a concert pianist, Goldman's interest in the brain led him to the University of Cambridge for a Ph.D. in music cognition, and then to Columbia, where he just finished a three-year fellowship in the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience program.

When Goldman this spring put on Science! the Musical, a playful commentary about academic life that he wrote and performed in on piano, he was delighted when the lead singer embellished one song, "The Real World," with extra notes for emotional emphasis. "She had never done that in rehearsal, he says. "It worked very well."

This summer, Goldman heads to Western University in Ontario to continue studying the neuroscience of improvisation, a field that has expanded rapidly in recent years. Rather than focus on defining the subjective nature of improvisation, Goldman wants to go after questions with measurable answers. For example, how do different types of training influence musical perception? How do improvisers organize their knowledge of musical structures differently from non-improvisers?

George Lewis, a professor of composition and musicology at Columbia who co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisational Studies, says Goldman is off to a promising start.

"This work shows that far from being ineffable or mysterious, the practice of improvisation can be studied scientifically, yielding new knowledge about the brain and how we all get along in the world," said Lewis, who was not involved in the study. "This is important all by itself, and relevant to other work in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and beyond."

Explore further: New approach to teaching music improvisation enhances creativity

More information: Andrew Goldman et al, Improvisation experience predicts how musicians categorize musical structures, Psychology of Music (2018). DOI: 10.1177/0305735618779444

Related Stories

New approach to teaching music improvisation enhances creativity

June 21, 2017
As World Music Day is approaching, taking place each year on 21 June, many are looking forward to the musical events in the streets or parks and the atmosphere it brings with it. Watching musicians perform can be impressive, ...

Dan­cer's brains dis­play brain fre­quen­cies linked to emo­tion and memory pro­cesses

May 4, 2018
Neuroscience has studied music for decades, and it has been found to activate both the cortical and deeper brain areas. Neuroscience of dance, instead, is a young but quickly growing field.

Study shows creativity is state of mind that can be trained

April 19, 2018
As an undergraduate student at York University, Joel Lopata was studying film production and jazz performance when a discrepancy became apparent.

Learning music or speaking another language leads to more efficient brains

May 17, 2018
Whether you learn to play a musical instrument or speak another language, you're training your brain to be more efficient, suggests a Baycrest study.

Recommended for you

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

In the developing brain, scientists find roots of neuropsychiatric diseases

December 13, 2018
The most comprehensive genomic analysis of the human brain ever undertaken has revealed new insights into the changes it undergoes through development, how it varies among individuals, and the roots of neuropsychiatric illnesses ...

How the brain tells you to scratch that itch

December 13, 2018
It's a maddening cycle that has affected us all: it starts with an itch that triggers scratching, but scratching only makes the itchiness worse. Now, researchers have revealed the brain mechanism driving this uncontrollable ...

Study confirms role of brain's support cells in Huntington's, points to new therapies

December 13, 2018
New research gives scientists a clearer picture of what is happening in the brains of people with Huntington's disease and lays out a potential path for treatment. The study, which appears today in the journal Cell Stem Cell, ...

Researchers identify pathway that drives sustained pain following injury

December 13, 2018
A toddler puts her hand on a hot stove and swiftly withdraws it. Alas, it's too late—the child's finger has sustained a minor burn. To soothe the pain, she puts the burned finger in her mouth.

Pain: Perception and motor impulses arise in brain independently of one another

December 13, 2018
Pain is a negative sensation that we want to get rid of as soon as possible. In order to protect our bodies, we react by withdrawing the hand from heat, for example. This action is usually understood as the consequence of ...

0 comments

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.