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The Duet of Brain and Music

• January 22, 2010 • 7:45 AM

Two new studies of music and the brain give us insights into the mind of the improvising musician, and the conformist leanings of teenagers.

It’s always fascinating to ask a jazz musician about the experience of improvising. During their spontaneous solos, these remarkable players are producing notes faster than their conscious minds can think of them, and many report their primary effort consists of staying out of their own way.

New brain-scan research, reported in the new issue of the journal NeuroImage, finds a scientific explanation for that quasi-mystical phenomenon.

Meanwhile, a separate study in that same journal examines the brains of teenagers as they listen to music and finds evidence of the strong pull adolescents feel to conform to the preferences of their peers.

For the improvisation study, researchers Aaron Berkowitz and Daniel Ansari studied the brains of 28 people as they improvised five-note melodies on a tiny keyboard. Thirteen were classically trained undergraduate pianists from the Dartmouth College music department. The other 15 were nonmusicians (though some had played instruments for up to three years in the past).

“The two groups showed significant differences in functional brain activity during improvisation,” the researchers report. “Specifically, musicians deactivated the right temporoparietal junction during melodic improvisation, while nonmusicians showed no change in activity in this region.”

This suggests trained musicians “are entering a different state of attentional focus than nonmusicians as soon as they engage in even the simple act of playing, and that this effect is particularly heightened during melodic improvisation,” Berkowitz and Ansari write.

In other words, they effectively blocked out mental distractions, “allowing for a more goal-directed performance state that aids in creative thought.”

That ability to intensely focus has a variety of obvious benefits. Indeed, this study could be used as further evidence of the value of maintaining music education in the schools.

Speaking of students, the second study used similar fMRI technology to study the conformist tendencies of adolescents. A research team led by Gregory Berns of the Emory University School of Medicine scanned the brains of 27 youngsters ranging in age from 12 to 17 as they listened to 15-second clips from relatively obscure contemporary pop songs.

During the first round, the adolescents were asked to rate each of the 60 songs on a five-point scale. In the second round, the musical excerpts were replayed, with one crucial difference: Two-thirds of the time, the song’s MySpace popularity ranking was flashed onto the computer screen as the music played. Having received this information, participants were asked to rate the song a second time.

“Without popularity information displayed, participants changed their ratings on 11.6 percent of the trials,” the researchers report. “With popularity shown, they changed their ratings 21.9 percent of the time.”

Why would knowing other people’s opinions influence their own? “fMRI results showed a strong correlation between the participants’ rating and activity in the caudate nucleus, a region [of the brain] previously implicated in reward-driven actions,” according to the paper. “The tendency to change one’s evaluation of a song was positively correlated with activation in the anterior insula and anterior cingulate, two regions that are associated with psychological arousal and negative affective states.”

The researchers’ conclusion: “Our results suggest that a principal mechanism whereby popularity ratings affect consumer choice is through the anxiety generated by the mismatch between one’s own preferences and the others’. This mismatch anxiety motivates people to switch their choices in the direction of the consensus.”

So, if you’re told your peers all like a certain band, but its music doesn’t really speak to you, this creates anxiety — which can, and sometimes is, alleviated by deciding you like the group after all. Of course, we eventually outgrow this need to fit in and boldly follow our own paths. Don’t we?

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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