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Musical Improvisers Have Better Connections Between Brain Regions

Playing the piano

There’s a difference between a classical pianist who sits down to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and a jazz pianist with hours of improvisational experience who is comfortable making up a melody in front of an audience.

The difference, it turns out, can be seen as well as heard. Seen by a brain scanner, that is.

The effects of long-term musical practice on the brain are well documented, but scientists have only begun to explore how the type of musical training can change the neural effects. In a study out this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, Ana Luísa Pinho and colleagues set out to investigate the neural basis of musical creativity, or improvisation.

The scientist put 39 professional pianists into a MRI scanner and assessed brain activity and connectivity as the pianists improvised tunes on a keyboard placed on their laps. The musicians also filled out a questionnaire on the number of hours they rehearsed classical music and practiced improvisation in an average week.

Pinho and her colleagues found that the more a musician practiced improvisation, the greater the connectivity between certain brain regions was as they improvised. The highly connected brain regions were areas that have to do with planning, abstract reasoning, and movement control – specifically, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the presupplementary motor area, and the dorsal premotor cortex.  This result supports the idea that there may be no specific brain region that generates creative thought: rather, creativity may be generated by a distributed network of brain regions working in symphony.

Surprisingly, at the same time that the connectivity between these areas increased, the overall activity of prefrontal brain regions decreased according to how much a musician had practiced improvisation. This decrease in the activity of areas used for planning and cognitive control suggests there there is a degree of automation during extemporaneous playing when one is practiced at it.

This may reflect the subjective experience of improvisers – that when they are performing, they are not thinking hard, but are in a state of flow.  The improvisational playing feels automatic, despite being unique and creative.

Improvisation requires a musician to build up a library of musical phrases and motifs over time, to be accessed when playing and put together in new and expressive ways.  Creativity requires training. This work suggests the intriguing possibility that creativity can, to some extent, become automatic to the brain.

Related postEarly musical training gives older adults an advantage

ReferenceConnecting to Create: Expertise in Musical Improvisation Is Associated with Increased Functional Connectivity between Premotor and Prefrontal Areas (2014) Ana Luísa Pinho, Örjan de Manzano, Peter Fransson, Helene Eriksson, and Fredrik Ullén. J Neurosci 34(18): 6156-6163

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Early musical training gives older adults an advantage


Brain recordings of professional musicians have revealed that they have sharper auditory responses than non-musicians, even in late life when neural responses are declining. But what about people who played an instrument early in life and then stopped after reaching adulthood?

Travis White-Schwoch and his colleagues addressed this question by recording from the auditory brainstem of adults between the ages of 55 and 76.  The older adults fell into one of three groups: some had no musical training, others had three years or less, and some had between four and fourteen years.

As we age, one of the elements of speech that is the most difficult to encode and hear properly is a consonant-vowel transition.  This is because of how quickly the transition occurs relative to the sustained vowel sound.  (Think of how easy it is to mistake the word “vowels” for the word “bowels”.) For this reason, the group hypothesized that those with more musical training would have faster neural responses to the consonant-vowel transition syllable “da” than their non-trained counterparts.  This was true, especially when the syllable was presented in a noisy environment, which tends to slow neural responses in the auditory brainstem.

So why does it make a difference if those with musical training react a few milliseconds faster than their non-trained peers?  In short, timing is everything.  A faster reaction means a more efficient auditory system.  This study does not explore whether the musically-trained groups have comparatively fewer events of mishearing speech, but that can be a hard variable to quantify.  Having a faster reaction in the brainstem at least makes it more likely that the cortex can parse speech correctly.

It is remarkable that early musical training left a detectable trace in the brain,  despite the fact that 40 or more years had passed since the musical training ceased.  Although this study does not address the mechanisms of the change, the authors propose at least two alternatives.  It could be that early training causes a enhancement that is crystallized as the adult ages, resulting in a permanent structural change.  The authors see this as unlikely, however, given that auditory responses are known to be responsive to interventions even late in adulthood.  Another possibility is that early musical training changes the individual’s lifetime relationship with sounds, and so the tight neural timing typical of a musician is reinforced.  To state it differently, people with early musical training may be better listeners throughout their lives, more appreciative of the rhythms and tones that make up our auditory landscape.

One thing is for sure: I’m glad my mom made me practice violin everyday as a kid. She was right when she said I’d thank her later.


T. White-Schwoch, K.W. Carr, S. Anderson, D.L. Strait, N. Kraus.   (2013) Older Adults Benefit from Music Training Early in Life: Biological Evidence for Long-Term Training-Driven Plasticity