neurosciencestuff: Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of…


Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

A musician’s brain is different to that of a non-musician. Making music
requires a complex interplay of various abilities which are also
reflected in more strongly developed brain structures. Scientists at the
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS)
in Leipzig have recently discovered that these capabilities are embedded
in a much more finely-tuned way than previously assumed—and even differ
depending on the style of the music: They observed that the brain
activity of jazz pianists differs from those of classical pianists
, even
when playing the same piece of music. This could give insight into the
processes which generally take place while making music and which are
specific for certain styles.

Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an
interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert
where he would play both jazz and classical music: “No, that’s
hilarious. […] It’s like a chosen practically impossible thing […] It’s
[because of] the circuitry. Your system demands different circuitry for
either of those two things.“ Where non-specialists tend to think that it
should not be too challenging for a professional musician to switch
between styles of music, such as jazz and classical, it is actually not
as easy as one would assume, even for people with decades of experience.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain
Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig demonstrated that there could be a
neuroscientific explanation for this phenomenon: They observed that
while playing the piano, different processes occur in jazz and classical
pianists’ brains, even when performing the same piece.

“The reason could be due to the different demands these two styles
pose on the musicians—be it to skilfully interpret a classical piece or
to creatively improvise in jazz. Thereby, different procedures may have
established in their brains while playing the piano which makes
switching between the styles more difficult”, says Daniela Sammler,
neuroscientist at MPI CBS and leader of the current study about the
different brain activities in jazz and classical pianists.

One crucial distinction between the two groups of musicians is the
way in which they plan movements while playing the piano. Regardless of
the style, pianists, in principle, first have to know what they are
going to play—meaning the keys they have to press—and, subsequently, how
to play—meaning the fingers they should use. It is the weighting of
both planning steps which is influenced by the genre of the music.

According to this, classical pianists focus their playing on the
second step, the „How“. For them it is about playing pieces perfectly
regarding their technique and adding personal expression. Therefore, the
choice of fingering is crucial. Jazz pianists, on the other hand,
concentrate on the “What”. They are always prepared to improvise and
adapt their playing to create unexpected harmonies.

“Indeed, in the jazz pianists we found neural evidence for this
flexibility in planning harmonies when playing the piano”, states
Roberta Bianco, first author of the study. “When we asked them to play a
harmonically unexpected chord within a standard chord progression,
their brains started to replan the actions faster than classical
pianists. Accordingly, they were better able to react and continue their
performance.“ Interestingly, the classical pianists performed better
than the others when it came to following unusual fingering. In these
cases their brains showed stronger awareness of the fingering, and
consequently they made fewer errors while imitating the chord sequence.

The scientists investigated these relations in 30 professional
pianists; half of them were specialized in jazz for at least two years,
the other half were classically trained. All pianists got to see a hand
on a screen which played a sequence of chords on a piano scattered with
mistakes in harmonies and fingering. The professional pianists had to
imitate this hand and react accordingly to the irregularities while
their brain signals were registered with EEG (Electroencephalography)
sensors on the head. To ensure that there were no other disturbing
signals, for instance acoustic sound, the whole experiment was carried
out in silence using a muted piano.

“Through this study, we unravelled how precisely the brain adapts to
the demands of our surrounding environment”, says Sammler. It also makes
clear that it is not sufficient to just focus on one genre of music if
we want to fully understand what happens in the brain when we perform
music—as it was done so far by just investigating Western classical
music. “To obtain a bigger picture, we have to search for the smallest
common denominator of several genres”, Sammler explains. “Similar to
research in language: To recognise the universal mechanisms of
processing language we also cannot limit our research to German”.

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