Music Improv: Impacting Your Brain
Skilled improvisers were better than musicians with limited improvisational experience at distinguishing between chords that can be used interchangeably in a piece of music and those that cannot, a new study finds. The results suggest that musical improvisation, like so many other skills, improves with practice as the brain learns to categorize musical structures in a new way.
John Coltrane and Jerry Garcia became improvising legends for their ability to mix musical elements on the fly. How the brain accomplishes such feats of creativity under pressure remains a mystery, though practice is increasingly thought to play a pivotal role.
Now, in a new study in the journal Psychology of Music, Columbia University researchers show that skilled improvisers are better than musicians with limited improvisational experience at distinguishing between chords that can be used interchangeably in a piece of music and chords that cannot. Further, when the improvisers recognized a chord unsuitable for substitution, their brains showed a pattern of electrical activity distinct from non-improvising musicians.
"It turns out that the degree to which we can predict how musicians respond to different types of musical substitution has nothing to do with how much they practice, but the way they practice," said the study's senior author, Paul Sajda, a biomedical engineer at Columbia Engineering and a member of Columbia's Data Science Institute. "Improvisational practice seems to reinforce how the brain represents different types of musical structures."
Originally appeared in Science Daily. Continue reading