The Musician's Brain
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.”