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home : lifestyle : health   June 25, 2016

3/6/2014 11:19:00 AM
This is your brain on music (video)

Peru Parkside students work on their improv skills under the direction of Phillip Whaley. According to a recent study, the part of the brain used during jazz improvisation is the same part used during conversation.
Jonathan Covert, a student at Parkside Middle School in Peru, improvises on the saxophone during a session with the school jazz band. A new study shows the brain’s language regions also enable musical improvisation much like a spoken conversation.NewsTribune photo/Jeff Dankert
+ click to enlarge
Jonathan Covert, a student at Parkside Middle School in Peru, improvises on the saxophone during a session with the school jazz band. A new study shows the brain’s language regions also enable musical improvisation much like a spoken conversation.

NewsTribune photo/Jeff Dankert

By Lauran Neergaard,
Associated Press Writer
and Jeff Dankert,
NewsTribune Reporter

Jazz musicians are famous for their musical conversations — one improvises a few bars and another plays an answer. Now research shows some of the brain’s language regions enable that musical back-and-forth much like a spoken conversation.

It gives new meaning to the idea of music as a universal language.

The finding, published in the journal PLoS One, is the latest in the growing field of musical neuroscience: Researchers are using how we play and hear music to illuminate different ways that the brain works.

And to Dr. Charles Limb, a saxophonist-turned-hearing specialist at Johns Hopkins University, the spontaneity that is a hallmark of jazz offered a rare chance to compare music and language.

“They appear to be talking to one another through their instruments,” Limb explained. “What happens when you have a musical conversation?”

Dreaming up ways to play music while you’re playing is similar to thinking of what to say while in conversation, said Phillip Whaley, band director at Parkside School, Peru.

“When they’re doing improvisation it’s really using musical ideas that they’ve compiled from lots of different musical experiences that they’ve had before and sort of combining them on the spot to make up new melodies,” Whaley said. “There are some musicians that really struggle with it and because it taps into a creative side of your brain that you normally don’t go to.”

Watching brains on jazz requires getting musicians to lie flat inside a cramped MRI scanner that measures changes in oxygen use by different parts of the brain as they play.

An MRI machine contains a giant magnet — meaning no trumpet or sax. So Limb had a special metal-free keyboard manufactured, and then recruited 11 experienced jazz pianists to play it inside the scanner. They watched their fingers through strategically placed mirrors during 10-minute music stretches.

Sometimes they played scales. Other times, they did what’s called “trading fours,” where the pianist made up four bars, and then Limb or another musician-scientist in the lab improvised four bars in return, and the pianist responded with still new notes.

That conversation-like improvisation activated brain areas that normally process the syntax of language, the way that words are put together into phrases and sentences. Even between their turns playing, the brain wasn’t resting. The musicians were processing what they were hearing to come up with new sounds that were a good fit.

At the same time, certain other regions of the brain involved with language — those that process the meaning of words — were tuned down, Limb found.

That makes sense because “the richness of the structure of music is what gives it its significance,” Limb said. “You can have substantive discourse using music, without any words, yet language areas of the brain are involved in this unique way.”

Past improvisations, whether yesterday or five minutes ago, lead to new music, Whaley said.

“What we hear, what we learn about music, you’re just using it to make up a whole new melody,” he said. “It’s different every single time you do it. The next time you improvise, it’s different. Every improv solo, it’s different and unique in its own way and I guess you could say that about conversations.”

One ultimate goal of musical neuroscience is to better understand the brain’s circuitry, and how it can rewire itself, in hopes of eventually finding new treatments for neural disorders. Limb made headlines several years ago when he measured jazz musicians’ riffs — longer, solo improvisations — to study creativity in the brain.

“We know nothing about how the brain innovates,” he said. “This is one way to learn what innovation means neurologically.”

Stay tuned: Next he hopes to study children who are just learning music, and to compare amateurs to professionals, as he explores how people become creative.

Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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