fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation

Though there is much talk about this study, check out this study that goes back a few years:

Our results strongly implicate a distinctive pattern of changes in prefrontal cortical activity that underlies the process of spontaneous musical composition. Our data indicate that spontaneous improvisation, independent of the degree of musical complexity, is characterized by widespread deactivation of lateral portions of the prefrontal cortex together with focal activation of medial prefrontal cortex. This unique pattern may offer insights into cognitive dissociations that may be intrinsic to the creative process: the innovative, internally motivated production of novel material (at once rule based and highly structured) that can apparently occur outside of conscious awareness and beyond volitional control.

In jazz music, improvisation is considered to be a highly individual expression of an artist’s own musical viewpoint . . .  In short, musical creativity vis-à-vis improvisation may be a result of the combination of intentional, internally generated self-expression (MPFC-mediated) with the suspension of self-monitoring and related processes (LOFC- and DLPFC-mediated) that typically regulate conscious control of goal-directed, predictable, or planned actions.

In an intriguing neuroimaging study of musical improvisation in classically trained pianists, Bengtsson et al. [13] found activations in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, as well as premotor and auditory areas during improvisation. Our study differs from this one in several important ways. First, the study by Bengtsson et al. utilized contrasts that were designed to remove deactivations. In comparison, we had the explicit goal of identifying relevant deactivations that might support the notion of a hypofrontal state associated with creative activity. Hence, the masking strategies employed by our studies were fundamentally different, and would be expected to lead to divergent results. Second, our subjects were jazz pianists (rather than classical pianists). This difference is relevant in that jazz, much more so than classical music, is intrinsically characterized by improvisation. As a result, we believe that our findings reflect neural mechanisms behind improvisation in a perhaps more natural context, and certainly in musicians who have finely developed improvisational skills. Lastly, Bengtsson and coworkers utilized conditions in which musical improvisations were generated and then subsequently reproduced by memory. These conditions address an interesting facet of improvisation—the interaction between spontaneous musical performance and memory. We sought to eliminate the secondary impact of episodic memory encoding on improvisation by using either an over-learned or completely improvised condition (without a reproduction task in either condition).

Because our experiments were performed in highly trained musicians, it remains to be clarified whether or not our findings have characterized a higher qualitative level of musical output (as opposed to that which might be produced by less skilled performers). However, the similar findings seen for both Scale and Jazz paradigms, despite the musical simplicity of the former, strongly suggest that our findings are attributable to neural mechanisms that underlie spontaneity more broadly rather than those specific to high-level musicality alone. Taken together, the consistency of findings reported here suggests that the dissociation of activity in medial and lateral prefrontal cortices is attributable to the experimentally constant feature of improvisation and may be a defining characteristic of spontaneous musical creativity.