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Brain “under the jazz”

When jazz musicians improvise, areas responsible for self-censorship and inhibition of nerve impulses are turned off in their brain, and areas that open the way for self-expression are turned on instead.

A companion study from Johns Hopkins University, which included volunteer musicians from the Peabody Institute, and which used the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) method, shed light on the mechanism of creative improvisation that artists use in everyday life.

Jazz musicians, improvising, create their own unique riffs by turning off braking and turning on creativity.

Scientists from the Medical University, the National Institute of Deafness show their interest in the possible neurological basis of a condition that is close to a trance state into which jazzmen fall into spontaneous improvisation.

“When jazz musicians improvise, they often play with their eyes closed in their own distinctive style, demonstrating the traditional rules of melody and rhythm,” said Charles Limb, professor of medicine, assistant professor at the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Cervical Surgery at Medical Johns Hopkins School, which itself is also an experienced jazz saxophonist.

“This is a special mood of the soul,” he adds, “when suddenly, all of a sudden, a musician creates music that he has never heard, never thought about it and never played anything like it before. What comes out is completely spontaneous. ”

Many studies of recent years have concentrated on trying to understand which parts of the human brain are activated when listening to music, and, as Limb argues, too little attention has been paid to studying brain activity in the process of spontaneous music compilation.

Desiring to understand what was happening with his own brain in a state of “jazz”, he and his colleague Allen R. Braun, a professor of medicine, developed a plan to monitor brain functioning during real-time musical improvisations.

They invited six experienced jazz pianists to participate in this study, three of them from the Peabody Institute, a music conservatory in which Limb is also a professor. Other volunteers became aware of this study, thanks to rumors spread in the local jazz community.

Researchers have developed a special keyboard on which pianists can play inside the apparatus of a functional magnetic resonance image; a brain scanner that displays areas of the brain that respond to various stimuli, for example, identifying which areas are active when a person is involved in some kind of mental activity.

Since the apparatus of a functional magnetic resonance image uses powerful magnets, scientists have developed a non-standard keyboard that does not contain metal parts that could be attracted by a magnet. They also used headphones compatible with this unit, which allowed musicians to hear the music they create during the game.

Each musician participated in four different exercises designed to distinguish between brain activity during a game from the memory of simple piano pieces and brain activity observed during improvisation.

Being inside the fMRI instrument with a keyboard arranged on their lap, all pianists started the game from scale to major, a well-remembered series of notes that every novice musician studies. The metronome built into the headphones was designed to provide the same gamma playing by all musicians – in the same order, with the same intervals.

To complete the second exercise, pianists had to improvise. They were supposed to play quarter notes of the scale, but they could play them in any order in which they themselves wished.

Further, the musicians had to play the blues tune in the original, which they had learned beforehand, while a jazz quartet supplementing the tune played the background recording. In the last exercise, the musicians had to improvise with their own tunes, using the same jazz quartet record.

Then Limb and Brown analyzed the recordings taken from the brain with a scanner. Since areas of the brain that are activated during the process of playing from memory are those parts of it that are usually active during playing any kind of piano, the researchers excluded them from the picture of the brain obtained during improvisation.

Working further only with areas of the brain that are specific to the improvisation process, scientists saw strikingly similar patterns, regardless of whether the musicians performed simple improvisation in gamma in C major, or performed a more complex melody, improvising with a jazz quartet.

Scientists have discovered that the part of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – a wide frontal region of the brain expanding from the center to the periphery – showed a slowdown in brain activity.

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