The metaphysics of a Jazz Thing

A fantastic study has just been released by open-access science journal PLoS One that investigated the neuroscience of jazz improvisation.

Jazz musicians were put inside an fMRI brain scanner and were asked to do complete a number of different musical exercises using a specially adapted magnet-friendly keyboard.

The musicians were asked to demonstrate musical scales, a pre-practised fixed piece, and an improvisation exercise while their brains were scanned.

A summary of the study by the John Hopkins medical school team gives the main results:

The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview. Shutting down this area could lead to lowered inhibitions, Limb suggests.

The researchers also saw increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which sits in the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This area has been linked with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story about yourself.

Some years ago, psychiatrist Sean Spence suggested that Jazz music may have been born owing to the ‘the father of Jazz’, Buddy Bolden, having schizophrenia and suffering from associated frontal lobe impairments.

Spence argued that reduced frontal lobe function meant that Bolden could only improvise, as he didn’t have the cognitive control to stick to pre-learnt pieces.

At the time improvisation was considered a sign that you couldn’t play ‘proper music’ well enough, but Bolden took improvisation to a new level with wondrous flights of fancy and, as the legend goes, jazz was born. That’s not the whole story of course, but it’s possibly an ingredient.

While these new findings don’t give us much of a lead on whether this might have been the genuine beginning of jazz music, it’s interesting that the idea that reduced frontal lobe function ‘frees up’ the over-inhibited playing of set pieces, is consistent.

Link to PLoS One article on the cognitive neuroscience of Jazz.
Link to study summary.
Link to BBC News on Spence’s theory.

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