“So when you solo, yeah, you might get into one thing, but then, hey, everything has implications! You can hear the next level. And that's how I feel about improvising - there's always another level.”
~ Sonny Rollins, one of the world’s
foremost jazz saxophonists
Groove on Miles Davis. Or John Coltrane. Or Charlie Mingus (picture below). Charlie Parker or Thelonius Monk. Listen as they take chords and melody to where you never thought they’d go.
So what happens to a jazz musician's brain during these incredible flights of improvisation? The answer is teaching scientists a lot about creativity in general. And it's providing insight that might apply to a far greater range of creative thought:
When improvisation begins, the brain first turns off self-monitoring – in other words, inhibition - by shutting down the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Got that?
Next self-expression ignites in the medial prefrontal cortex and gets connected to the brain region where autobiographical storytelling resides. That’s why individual styles of improvisation are sometimes considered as telling your own musical story.
And finally your sensory awareness shifts into high gear even though you’re doing nothing externally to stimulate touch, hearing or sight. But still, your senses become sharpened.
In fact, these are all the same brain activities that occur when we dream.
So how was all of this determined? Neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins and the National Institute of Health recently used an MRI to watch the brains of six professional jazz musicians as they improvised. This was no simple challenge since the large magnet utilized by the MRI can’t tolerate metal – as in musical instruments – so the scientists used special plastic keyboards that could fit inside the cramped MRI as the musicians played structured music and then switched to improvisation while listening to pumped-in music.
“It’s one thing to come up with a musical ditty, but it’s another thing entirely to come up with a masterpiece – an hourlong idea after idea,” said Dr. Charles Limb, the Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist supervising the research. This jazz-based brain research is beginning to get widespread attention and appreciation.
"Improvisation always has a sort of magical quality associated with it. People think when you're improvising you have some sort of inspiration that's not measurable," Dr. Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute, a pioneer in the neuroscience of music and himself a classical organist, told the Associated Press last week. "They went forward where everyone else feared to tread."