60-Second Science

Jazz Improvisers Appear to Use Language Brain Areas

Brain scans of musicians as they improvised in a musical dialogue with another player showed that the improvisers used regions involved in syntax during production of language. Sophie Bushwick reports 

Jazz musicians are skilled improvisers. And now we know that they craft their spontaneous melodies the same way you craft a sentence.
Researchers scanned the brains of 11 professional musicians doing what’s called “trading fours”: two soloists take turns playing short riffs of about four bars. During each 10 minute session, a subject in a cramped functional MRI machine with a small keyboard traded fours with a second musician outside the scanner.
As the musicians played, the language areas of their brains lit up. Specifically, the players were using the regions that normally fit words together into phrases and sentences, using the rules of syntax. The study is in the journal PLoS ONE. [Gabriel F. Donnay et al., Neural Substrates of Interactive Musical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of ‘Trading Fours’ in Jazz
The research demonstrates that the brain appears to treat creating music as a form of communication. After all, trading fours is a musical conversation, where each player makes and modifies melodies in response to the other. And the research also hints that syntax applies to more than language. The same brain regions help us keep all our communication swinging smoothly.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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