Talking music: fMRI improvises a link

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  • Published: Mar 1, 2014
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Talking music: fMRI improvises a link

Jive talking

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brains of jazz musicians engrossed in spontaneous, improvisational musical conversation light up in areas conventionally associated with spoken language and syntax. (Guitar photos David Bradley)

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brains of jazz musicians engrossed in spontaneous, improvisational musical conversation light up in areas conventionally associated with spoken language and syntax. These brain regions are thought to be involved in the interpretation of the structure of phrases and sentences. Conversely, the musical "conversation" leads to reduced activity in brain areas linked to meaning, semantics, - those processes that work out the meaning of spoken language.

Charles Limb of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, and colleagues are trying to understand what happens during improvisation in the brains of jazz musicians engrossed in spontaneous, improvisational musical conversation. They have used fMRI to follow brain activity as musicians "trade fours," a process in which the musicians essentially take turns to improvise on their chosen instrument spontaneously back and forth to build up nuggets of musical gold in segments four musical bars long. The musicians introduce new rhythms, melodies and harmonies in response to each other's musical ideas, elaborating and modifying them over the course of a performance often of a popular song.

Syntactic vs semantic

The results of the study suggest that the brain regions that process syntax aren't limited to spoken language, explains Limb, rather, he says, the brain uses the syntactic areas to process communication in general, whether through language or through music. Limb himself is a musician with a faculty appointment at JHU's Peabody Conservatory, says the work sheds important new light on the complex relationship between music and language.

"Until now, studies of how the brain processes auditory communication between two individuals have been done only in the context of spoken language," says Limb, whose work is detailed in a paper in the journal Plos One. "But looking at jazz lets us investigate the neurological basis of interactive, musical communication as it occurs outside of spoken language. We've shown in this study that there is a fundamental difference between how meaning is processed by the brain for music and language. Specifically, it's syntactic and not semantic processing that is key to this type of musical communication. Meanwhile, conventional notions of semantics may not apply to musical processing by the brain."

Chatting Chattanooga

The JHU researchers - Lamb and colleagues Gabriel Donnay, Summer Rankin, Monica Lopez-Gonzalez and Patpong Jiradejvong - recruited 11 proficient male jazz pianists aged 25 to 56 years and had them trade fours in ten minute sessions. During each jam, one musician would lie in the MRI machine and use an entirely plastic (importantly non-magnetic) piano keyboard that was comfortably positioned and visible via a system of mirrors. The team found that improvisation between the musicians activated areas of the brain linked to syntactic processing for language, the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior superior temporal gyrus. In contrast, the musical exchange deactivated brain structures involved in semantic processing, the angular gyrus and supramarginal gyrus.

"When two jazz musicians seem lost in thought while trading fours, they aren't simply waiting for their turn to play," Limb suggests. "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."

Joe Thompson Musical Director of London's "The Club at the Ivy" suggests that the finding should be quite obvious, to musicians. "Exchanging fours with a great jazz musician offers a freedom of expression far greater than the spoken word can ever hope to obtain," he told SpectroscopyNOW. "However, when we communicate with each other we are doing a lot more than listening to, processing and returning the spoken word. In close-up, face to face dialogue, all of the senses are used, as they are when playing music with someone. Is the brain working harder in the jazz dialogue than in a situation where a terrified bloke is chatting up the love of his life, knowing he only has one shot at it?" Of course, the fMRI can provide the scientific evidence that the brain is or isn't working in similar ways in each situation.

Related Links

PLOS One, 2014, online: "Neural Substrates of Interactive Musical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of ‘Trading Fours’ in Jazz"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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