Science News rhapsodizes over Johns Hopkins research into what happens in musicians’ brains that makes the music happen:
“What we think is happening is that when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down neural impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas,” says Limb, himself a trained jazz saxophonist.
Moreover, jazz musicians immersed in improvisation display heightened brain activity in all sensory areas and in adjacent motor regions, the researchers say. Improvisers’ brains “ramped up” to translate incoming sensations into novel musical performances, Limb suggests.
The researchers used MRI scanners to read brain activity as various kinds of musicians went through their paces, playing scales, playing planned compositions, and just exploring a few riffs.
My favorite bit is from the end of the article:
Further research could help determine whether the observed frontal responses contribute to altered states of consciousness often reported during jazz improvisation.
Neuroscientist Fredrik Ullén of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm regards the widespread deactivation of planning-related frontal areas during jazz improvisation as “the most fascinating new finding.” In a 2007 fMRI study of classical pianists, Ullén found more frontal-brain activation during improvisation than Limb and Braun did. However, classical pianists lack the improvisational experience of jazz pianists, he says.