Inside the brains of jazz musicians

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  • Published: Feb 27, 2014
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy / Proteomics / X-ray Spectrometry / Chemometrics & Informatics / Base Peak / Raman / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / Atomic / Infrared Spectroscopy / NMR Knowledge Base

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When jazz musicians improvise with each other, they access the same parts of the brain that are used for speech, but the areas associated with semantics, that process the meaning of spoken language, are deactivated.

This revelation was discovered by scientists from Johns Hopkins University, including part-time saxophonist Charles Limb, who used functional MRI to examine the brains of jazz players while they played trading fours responding to each others phrases with some of their own. One player was in free space while the other was in the cavity of the MRI machine, playing a small keyboard that was made of plastic to avoid being attracted to the magnet. One musician played while the other listened, before responding on his own instrument. Some of the musical phrases played and an explanation of trading fours can be accessed online with the full paper at Plos One.

When the player in the MRI machine responded to the phrasing of the other musician, the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior superior temporal gyrus areas in the brain became activated. These areas are associated with syntax and spoken language and are used to process sentences. Conversely, the musical exchange deactivated the angular gyrus and supramarginal gyrus areas which are liked to semantics which process the meaning of speech. So, syntactic processing allows this type of responsive musical communication.

"When two jazz musicians seem lost in thought while trading fours, they aren't simply waiting for their turn to play," Limb says. "Instead, they are using the syntactic areas of their brain to process what they are hearing so they can respond by playing a new series of notes that hasn't previously been composed or practiced."


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