The neuroscience of ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ jazz improvisation

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The neuroscience of creativity is a topic brimming with impenetrable unknowns. A new study published in the journal Scientific Reportspeels back another layer, revealing further mysteries.

It is a given that music has a profound, yet variable, impact on the human brain.

On the one hand, there is the joy or sorrow (or sometimes revulsion) that a melody generates within the listener.

This complex emotional shading experienced by the audience is overlaid with the creative aspects of the human brain responsible for writing and performing the piece.

The present study, carried out by Malinda McPherson and her team at the University of California-San Francisco, took brain scans of jazz musicians as they improvised “happy” or “sad” melodies.

Building on previous work by her colleague Dr. Charles Limb, the investigation finds variety in the role of a specific brain area dependent on musical mood. Although insightful, the research adds more intriguing questions to the field of study.

The creative brain

Creativity itself (musical or otherwise) can not be pinned down to one single area of the brain. The scientific consensus is that creativity depends on a myriad of factors and recruits regions across the entire brain.

Some brain area’s activities are dampened, some are ramped up; some connections are strengthened, others are quietened.

Although music has a palpable esoteric mysticism about it, every scientist knows that, despite the way it might feel, heavenly emotions, deep musings and sublime euphoria always have their genesis in chemicals and cells. That is the wonder of the human brain.

The current study follows on from work conducted by Dr. Charles Limb, previously at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD.

One of Dr. Limb’s studies investigated the differences between brain activity when playing rehearsed music, compared with improvisation. He found that improvisation was:

“Characterized by a dissociated pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex: extensive deactivation of dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions with focal activation of the medial prefrontal (frontal polar) cortex.”

In other studies, brain areas known to be important in the semantic processing of language were heavily involved in the creative process. Some of these areas showed an increase in activity, including the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior superior temporal gyrus.

Other language areas were found to become deactivated during improvisation, including the angular gyrus and supramarginal gyrus. Dr. Limb also found that an area synonymous with language – Broca’s area – is important for determining whether a note is off key.

In short, the perception and creation of music recruits a wide array of neural modules.

Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex

One module that is often implicated in musical creation is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). During acts of improvisation, the area is effectively switched off.

The DLPFC is implicated in a number of roles including memory, high-level planning and monitoring of behavior, cognitive flexibility and abstract reasoning. It is one of the most recent brain areas in evolutionary terms and does not reach maturity until well into adulthood.

In the current experiment, McPherson, a classical violinist, asked jazz pianists to play a small keyboard within a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The musicians were presented with a picture of a sad or happy woman.

McPherson asked the participants to improvise a melody that expressed the emotion of the images. The team found that deactivation of the DLPFC was significantly greater when the musicians were playing a ditty to accompany the happier image.

The DLPFC was less dampened while writing music inspired by the sadder of the two images, but, there was a noted increase in activity within the brain’s reward regions. These areas are involved in reinforcing behavior that leads to pleasurable outcomes.

McPherson says:

“There’s more deactivation of the DLPFC during happy improvisations, perhaps indicating that people are getting into more of a “groove” or “zone,” but during sad improvisations, there’s more recruitment of areas of the brain related to reward.

This indicates there may be different mechanisms for why it’s pleasurable to create happy versus sad music.”

Of course, this new layer to our understanding is still a thin layer. Questions still abound. As McPherson says: “The notion that we can study complex creativity in artists and musicians from a neuroscientific perspective is an audacious one.”

This fascinating glimpse into the neuroscience behind music is part of an ongoing mission to tease apart one of humanity’s most culturally ubiquitous and mysterious inventions.

Medical News Today recently covered research that investigated whether music could help treat epilepsy.

Written by Tim Newman

 

 

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