Air on a G thing

Seed Magazine has an absolutely wonderful article on the neuroscience of musical improvisation that looks at how skilled musicians from the jazz greats to the classical masters take us on unplanned melodic journeys.

It’s a brilliantly written piece, a compelling fusion of music and science journalism, that skilfully captures the emerging scientific interest in musical spontaneity.

Aaron Berkowitz, a cognitive ethnomusicologist, who took on the task of demystifying improvisation as the focus of his dissertation work at Harvard, has a theory. He likens the process of learning to improvise to that of learning a second language. Initially, he says, it’s all about memorizing vocabulary words, useful phrases and verb conjugation tables. Your first day, you might learn to say: How are you? I’m fine. “These are like the baby steps beginning improvisers take. They learn the structure of the blues. They learn basic chords and get the form down,” said Berkowitz. But they’re still very limited in what they can do…

The trajectory of acquiring a language, according to Berkowitz, where you begin with learned phrases, achieve fluency, and are eventually able to create poetry mirrors perfectly the process of learning to improvise. In the same way a language student learns words, phrases and grammatical structure so that later he can recombine them to best communicate his thoughts, a musician collects and commits to memory patterns of notes, chords and progressions, which he can later draw from to express his musical ideas.

After reading the piece I wondered if the brain handles musical improvisation in a similar way to how it manages freestyle rap, as they both require unplanned spontaneity but within the restrictions of ‘what works’.

Sadly, so far, science has completely neglected the neural basis of hip-hop, but we live in hope homey.

UPDATE: Mind Hacks posse in full effect. In the comments NT mentioned that neuroscientist Charles Limb has got a freestyle rap study in progress and neuromusic noted that DJ and neuroscientist @djenygma tweeted earlier today he was “Sitting in on #fMRI experiment using local rappers in a freestyle-vs-memorized processing task”.


Link to excellent article on musical improvisation.

3 thoughts on “Air on a G thing”

  1. This fMRI studies are fascinating (whether it’s music improv, the female orgasm, or meditation, etc.) but the results are limited by the skills of the test subject.

    For example the anterior cingulate gyrus mentioned — this area of the brain is supposed to over-ride the prefrontal cortex during these deep conflicts, but that’s not always the case.

    In first grade we had a contest who could hold their breath the longest as we walked down the length of the school to wash our hands before lunch. Not only did I easily win this contest but I eventually passed out, hitting the two corner cement walls in the bathroom and then the cement floor.

    Some 25 years later in my readings I’ve come across three medical books stating it’s impossible to hold your breath, voluntarily, till you pass out because the anterior cingulate gyrus will over-ride the prefrontal cortex. But I disproved science in first grade and also I then learned that the sherpas in the first climb of Mt. Everest had to hold their breath till they passed out, in order to prove their worthiness to lead the climb.

    Nevertheless I studied piano performance for a dozen years and also spent a lot of time doing improvisation. So these brain areas being activated definitely make sense and also I suggest that the rewiring results are long-term. As Oliver Sacks says you can tell if someone is a musician because they have an increased corpus callosum but that’s not the case with a writer or painter, etc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s