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The brains of jazz and classical musicians work differently, research suggests

The neural differences may explain why jazz and classically trained musicians tend to excel in their own style of music, and why it’s rare to find someone who has mastered both, researchers say.

Legendary South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela, shown performing at the St. Lucia Jazz festival, died on Tuesday at age 78.
REUTERS/Andrea De Silva

Two recently published studies provide some fascinating insights into the brain activity of jazz and classical musicians.

The studies are also helping scientists understand how the act of creating music alters the human brain, and how those alterations may affect creativity.

One of the studies, published in the journal Brain and Cognition, found that the brains of jazz musicians tend to be quicker than those of classically trained musicians at embracing unexpected sounds.

The other study, published in the journal Neurolmage, found that during a musical performance, the brain activity of jazz pianists differs from that of classically trained pianists — even when they are playing the same piece of music.

Embracing the unexpected

For the first study, researchers at Wesleyan University recruited 36 students: 12 were studying jazz (including, of course, improvisation), 12 were studying classical music and 12 were nonmusicians. 

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While hooked up to machines that monitored their brain activity, the participants were asked to listen to three categories of chord progressions. Some were common and predictable (“high-expectation”), some were slightly off-beat and less predictable (“medium-expectation”), while others were highly unusual and unpredictable (“low-expectation”).

The participants were asked to rate how much they liked each chord progression. The nonmusicians tended to prefer the high-expectation chords, while the classically trained musicians preferred both the high- and medium-expectation ones.

The preferences of the jazz musicians, however, were, in the researchers’ words, “undifferentiated between the high and low expectation conditions.” They embraced the chord progressions that surprised them as much as the ones that sounded familiar.

The brain-wave patterns of the three groups differed in ways that appeared to support the musicians’ stated differences in preferences. The jazz musicians processed — and then moved on from — the surprising chords faster than the classically trained musicians and nonmusicians.

“The improvisatory and experimental nature of jazz training can encourage musicians to take notes and chords that are out of place, and use them as a pivot to transition to new tonal and musical ideas,” the study’s authors write. “This could lead to the increased cognitive flexibility in jazz musicians.” 

Indeed, the jazz musicians scored higher on a creative-thinking test than the classically trained musicians, although both groups of musicians scored higher than the nonmusicians. 

Different reactions

For the second study, researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany recruited 15 jazz pianists and 15 classically trained pianists. All were professional musicians, with at least six years of formal training at music academies. The two groups were also comparable in age.

As in the previous study, the musicians were hooked up to machines that tracked their brain activity. Each was then shown a hand on a screen that played a sequence of chords on a muted piano. Scattered throughout the chords were irregularities, both in harmonies and in fingering. The pianists were asked to imitate the hand and react accordingly to the irregularities.

The study found that the brains of the two groups of pianists responded differently during this task.

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“In the jazz pianists we found neural evidence for … flexibility in planning harmonies when playing the piano,” said Roberta Bianco, the study’s lead author and a post-doctoral researcher, in a released statement. “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.”

The classically trained pianists performed better than their jazz counterparts, however, when it came to following unusual fingering. Their brains appeared to demonstrate a stronger awareness of fingering, which led to them making fewer errors when trying to replicate the chord sequences.

“Remarkably, long-term adaptive plasticity in the action control hierarchy was behaviourally reflected in structure flexibility in jazz pianists and fine movement accuracy in classical pianists during the execution of the same task,” Bianco and her colleagues conclude in their paper. “Hence, the specific demands and focus of previous experience may result in dramatic and enduring changes in performers’ motor control system, providing neurobiological accounts for the great divide between musicians of the ‘swing’ and the ‘legit’ style.”

The researchers suggest that these neural differences may explain why jazz and classically trained musicians tend to excel in their particular style of music, and why it’s rare to find someone who has mastered both.

FMI: You’ll find abstracts of the studies at Brain and Cognition and at Neurolmage, but the full studies are behind paywalls.