Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Musician’s Brain

• March 17, 2008 • 10:22 PM

Two new MRI studies provide insights into how music is processed in the brain and clues to the underlying structure of the creative process.

It’s now official: Music is a mind-altering substance. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis has seen the evidence firsthand, in the form of brain scans. So has Charles Limb, who could easily have given his set of cerebral scans tongue-in-cheek titles. This is your brain. This is your brain on bebop.

Limb and Margulis — a saxophonist and a pianist, respectively, who both segued into science — have just published separate studies of music and the brain. Margulis’ paper suggests that the intense training musicians receive literally changes the way their brains function. Limb’s work examines how jazz players get into a trance-like state of pure inventiveness as they improvise.

Video: John Coltrane Quartet

Together, their work could help lead to a demystification of the creative process, which many people consider the exclusive domain of the gifted few. “We are still married to antiquated, 19th-century notions of genius and creativity,” said Margulis, an assistant professor of music at the University of Arkansas. “The de-freakification of musical talent could be very powerful.”

Margulis’ study, which was conducted at Northwestern University, attempted to answer what has been, up to now, a chicken-and-egg question. “There are lots of studies showing that musicians’ brains have different networks than those of people who haven’t had formal musical training,” she noted. “But is this due to a genetic predisposition or to the effect of practicing an instrument for so long?”

To explore that issue, she and her colleagues rounded up nine violinists and seven flutists, all of whom had started playing their instrument by age 12. While sitting in MRI scanners, the musicians listened to very similar compositions by J.S. Bach — a set of pieces for violin, followed by one for flute.

The results: “Violinists’ brains, when they listen to violin music, look like flutists’ brains when they listen to flute music. That extensive experience with their own instrument resulted in the recruitment of this special network.”

In other words, Margulis’ work confirms the wisdom of the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” The fact that one starts working with an instrument at a young age and continues doing so for many years results in the precise configuration of brain activity needed to produce music, including heightened activity in motor regions and auditory association areas.

“This adds further support to the notion that it is training rather than genetic predisposition (that makes a musician),” she said. “People can get the impression that musicians are alien beings whose brains are wired differently. It plays into cultural notions of music being the domain of experts. (Our study suggests) it’s a matter of the experience you have had in your life. It’s not magic!”

Of course, nothing in music seems more magical than the act of improvisation. Jazz players often describe the experience as otherworldly, insisting that the notes emerge from their instrument faster than their conscious minds can process them.

Video: Coltrane explains what it’s like when he plays (1960)

But this, too, is due to a specific pattern of brain activity, which is captured for the first time in Limb’s study. It took place at the National Institutes of Health in Washington D.C., where Limb — a John Hopkins University faculty member who works both in the medical school and in the world-renowned Peabody Institute — served as a research fellow.

One day, Limb recalled, he was discussing his intense interest in music with Allen Braun, chief of the NIH’s language section. “Simultaneously, we talked about how much we wanted to do an MRI study of improvising,” he said.

Fashioning such a study required a significant amount of creativity itself. It took two years to find a way to allow jazz musicians to perform while their brain activity was being photographed.

“There were a lot of constraints,” Limb said. “Some were ergonomic. The musicians would lie on their back in a tube, which came up to their shoulders. There was a coil around their head. They were looking up at a mirror, which looks at another mirror, which pointed at their thighs, where their keyboard sat. So they were able to see their hands on the plastic keyboard.”

Even for musicians used to playing for drunken nightclub patrons, those are difficult conditions — especially since each stayed in that position for about 75 minutes. But Limb had no problem recruiting six professional players to take part.


Listen to audio clips of the melodies the jazz musicians improvised


“The subjects were beyond enthusiastic,” he reported. “Jazz musicians are a pretty introspective bunch. They found the notion that we could image their brain while we were jamming pretty cool.”

First, the musicians performed a very simple set of improvisations, based on a C-major scale. Then they moved on to a more complex task, improvising on a blues melody Limb composed.

The results, as seen on the MRI scans, “were virtually identical,” Limb said. Regardless of the level of musical complexity, the same regions of the brain were being activated, “which made us conclude it was the act of improvisation” that created this particular pattern of brain activity.

Video: Oliver Sacks discusses music’s impact on the brain

And what an interesting pattern. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — the region responsible for self-evaluation — shut down completely, while activity increased in the nearby medial prefrontal cortex.

“That’s a very unique combination,” Limb said. “You don’t typically see, in this part of the brain, one part going up and one part going down.
“The medial portion is activated when you do something that’s internally motivated and self-generated — something goal-directed, based on a cognitive understanding of what you need to achieve. When you’re telling a story about yourself, that area is active. That’s very interesting, because in a jazz improvisation, you’re telling your own musical story.

“What makes it really intriguing is that activity is surrounded by a broad expanse of deactivation. (That area is the source of) your inhibitors, your censors — all those inhibitory behaviors. They’re turned off, I think, to encourage the flow of new ideas. You’re not analyzing or judging what’s coming out. You’re just letting it flow.”

Limb and Braun were both cautious about overinterpreting their findings. “It’s pretty clear we aren’t looking at creativity per se,” Braun said. “Another part of the creative process is revision and polishing; that’s a part we haven’t looked at. We’re looking at one aspect of creative, spontaneous behavior.”

Nevertheless, as Limb noted, creativity — which is, after all, “fundamental to human advancement” — has traditionally been considered off-limits to scientific study. This study suggests one fundamental part of the creative process can be traced to specific brain activity. Indirectly, it also confirms Margulis’ belief that the development of talent — practice, practice, practice — is crucial to creativity.

“I have no idea how to promote getting into (the jazz musicians’ creatively fertile) state,” Limb said. “But our study suggests that the notion of ‘letting go’ is meaningful. That’s why amateur musicians can’t get there. They can’t let go — they’re far too concerned with the execution of the notes, the mechanics of playing their instruments. That’s too much at the forefront of their consciousness.

“When you’re masterful at what you’re doing, it becomes second nature (and the self-censoring part of the brain can switch off). Then you can focus on ideas.”

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.