What Happens When You Make Musicians Play Jazz Inside an MRI Machine?

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Photo via Scientific American, courtesy Charles J. Limb
Photo via Scientific American, courtesy Charles J. Limb

More than any other kind of music (except jam bands, I guess), jazz is founded on the idea of mutual improvisation. When jazz players trade fours, they’re essentially engaging in a musical conversation, passing bars of music back and forth between each other.

Most of us listen to that kind of improvisation and just feel impressed or inspired, but Johns Hopkins neuroscientists have a different response: They want to get inside the brains of those jazz improvisers and figure out what exactly is going on. So they did what any jazz-obsessed neuroscientist would do… and recruited renowned local musicians (including Marin Alsop!) to trade fours inside an MRI machine. (Wouldn’t you have enjoyed being a fly on the wall of that lab?)

Researchers found that when jazz musicians engage in that kind of musical interchange, their brains activate in much the same way as when people engage in spoken conversation. Brain areas associated with syntax — the interpretation of the structure of phrases and sentences — were particularly active, while those related to semantics (the meaning of language) were shut down.

In other words, our brains treat music like a strange kind of language, one that’s all structure and no sense. Which makes a strange kind of sense of its own, doesn’t it?



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