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Musical improvising -- is it all in your brain?

Eric Is there a biological basis to a great sax solo?

Jonah Lehrer, a Wired editor and author of several populist-psychology books, recently recapped an intriguing new study by psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University. The authors asked distinct groups of college students to imagine a day off from school or work, with one group’s day set in the present, and the other's set from the perspective of a 7-year-old, and then gave each some creative problem-solving tasks.

It turns out that the latter group displayed far more creative agility on the tests after envisioning a free day as a child without the strictures of adult expectations.

There’s a specific region of the brain -- the prefrontal cortex -- that grows as we mature and socialize, enabling more focused attention but also keeping more random or dissociated ideas in line. Lehrer speculates that this has particular ramifications for musicians who improvise -- skilled instrumentalists might actually have learned to ignore this part of the brain that self-edits creativity and spontaneity.

The history of music is full of people looking for ways to, well, alter their minds to become more inventive players. This research suggests they may have actually been onto something. But sorry, bands, you still can’t write off your cortex-killing bar tabs as a medical expense.

-- August Brown

Photo of Eric Dolphy by Francis Wolff / Mosaic Images / CORBIS

Comments () | Archives (9)

This is hard to explain to non-artists. Visual artists have the same kind of mind space that allows creativity free reign. It's really how creativity works for everyone, not just artists, and why the rigid time and space formulations of the modern workplace are so soul-killing to most people.

Want to know the secret to tapping into that ability learned from the great jazz masters? Smoke marijuana.

Musical improvisation depends a lot on how one learned music. I've played with a lot of different musicians and all of the classically (school I mean, not style of) trained musicians I worked with were unable to improvise...at all. Didn't matter if it was singers, pianists, cellists etc once they got used to reading sheet music they were incapable of adding their own interpretation.

Very informative-- I played the saxophone for 10 years. I was great at playing while reading sheet music but could not improvise for the life of me.

You gotta tap into the collective consciousness man. That's where all the cool cats hang out. IF you need a little help getting there well that's your thing, you know, nothing to worry about. In fact in November we can all vote for mind expansion and make everything copacetic. YOu dig?

This is VERY interesting and may explain why so many musicians who were once prolific and highly creative as youths, seem to become musically "senile" as they age. It could be that as you get older, you lose that carefree, irresponsible (not meant as a negative) lifestyle. And when time constraints and responsiblities develop (as you mature), that creativity diminishes.

As a former musician who had to "put down" the music 30 years ago to raise a family, I long for free time to blow the dust off my piano to play and write music. My wife says that I "can have" one night a week dedicated to this however, I replied that it doesn't work that way. The more I try and "force" myself to write or more restrictive parameters I'm given, the less creative I am. As another poster said, it's hard to explain. Maybe that's why so many artists are loners.

I spent four years at SMC studying jazz and I found the same thing...classical singers and musicians could not improvise. It was shocking to me that they were so lacking in freedom and creativity. They coppped a superior attitude to the jazzers but I think deep down they knew they were just playing covers.

It's interesting that school is also a killer of creativity. Watching my kids go through some very expenisve private schools on the Westside has me wondering what I'm paying for. Teachers and administrators over here serve up what the rich parents want and what they want is discipline, memorization and whatever it took for them to be able to get rich. They start stressing their kids out in preschool.

didn't jim morrison say this? i've always felt artist are children at heart. something about being an artist leaves us all as spacecadets, and yes there is a hairline distinction between free flow art and color by number art, but still, we are all artists in many ways. as children we can do all things imaginary, and most forget, but not all!

Improv is just like anything else. You need to learn how to do it and practice. Sure, free association is part of it but there also parameters that must be respected. Sidney Bechet (the great clarinetist/saxophonist) said that when he soloed (and this is after great study) he would let his mind take him back to when he was a kid, not unlike the North Dakota study.


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