Cultured, Part 2

Cultured, Part 2

Music’s function as a carrier of social messaging has always been an essential part of human culture. Evidence presented in last week’s post showing that the innate characteristic of pattern recognition common to most animals can be prenatally engaged suggests that the use of music for introducing and indoctrinating us to our social hierarchy can begin while still in our mother’s womb. (Music’s power to influence an audience lies in the fact that it doesn’t really exist until it’s performed; that its reception is only possible over an extended period of time. So it can subtly present and deliver symbols, concepts, and opinions while we’re occupied by activities that are not specifically music related, e.g., driving, work, worship, shopping, eating, and maybe even sleeping.)

This led to the inclusion of the idea that music can act as an agent for social change with a reference to the summary of music-related news items that the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt in Germany publishes weekly. In the latest offering, a New York Daily News article is mentioned. The summary went, “Other researchers have found out that ‘piano players who had experience in jazz improvisation showed more connectivity between three major regions of the brain’s frontal lobe when they improvised music’.” But, when I read the article it linked to, I discovered that the report was part of another summary of events from the Society for Neuroscience’s Annual Meeting held in San Diego, California. The actual research and its results were mentioned only briefly and in no great detail.

After scouring through at least a thousand pages of abstracts from the meeting, I found the one pertaining to the study, which offered a bit more information. Especially interesting to see was that the mechanics of improvisation is not dependent on the amount of training for it:

A negative correlation was found between hours of improvisational training and the level of activity in the right superior parietal lobule and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. There was neither a correlation between expertise and behavioral complexity of the improvisations, nor between general piano practicing and brain activity.

However, the extent of the mechanics was dependent on training:

Analyses of psychophysiological interactions (PPI) were performed using seed regions in premotor and prefrontal cortex that have earlier been identified as key regions involved in free response generation and improvisation. For all these regions, it was found that improvisational training was related to increased functional connectivity with other motor, premotor, and prefrontal regions, when controlling for age and general piano playing.

The final result was something any jazz musician could tell you, albeit less clinically:

Extensive experience with improvisation is associated with lower levels of activity in frontal and parietal association areas, regions which are central for cognitive control, working memory, and explicit response selection, suggesting that generation of meaningful musical materials can be more automated or performed with less attentional effort. The PPI analysis indicates that improvisational training results in extensive functional reorganizations within motor regions of the frontal lobe.

I still wanted to know what it was the thirty-nine subjects involved in the study were asked to improvise. Did they play over chord changes? One chord? Free-form? Of course, when I plugged the presentation’s title, “Neural basis of expertise in musical creativity—a functional magnetic resonance imaging study,” and the name of the author, Ana Pinho (Karolinska Institutet), into my trusty Google search engine, I immediately found the press release for the meeting, which showed that there were two more presentations about music and brain function being offered: “It matters when you start: The age of onset of music training predicts brain anatomy” (Yunxin Wang, Beijing Normal University) and “Enhanced multisensory processing in musicians” (Julie Roy, University of Montreal). The release, “Musical Training Shapes Brain Anatomy and Affects Function: Training before age seven has bigger impact on brain anatomy; improvisation can rewire the brain,” included the overarching thesis:

Playing a musical instrument is a multisensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions—from finger tapping to dancing—and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. It has the potential to change brain function and structure when done over a long period of time.

While I mused over the idea that musical instrument playing is largely about finger tapping and dance-like body movement, I looked at the website,, that the release suggested as a place to find more information. Although there I found a fascinating article linking another activity to reorganized brain function, the intake of tetrahydrocannibol, I could not find the actual data from Pinho’s research. Back at the Google search page, however, I did find more published research about music and cognition that included some of the information that I find interesting.

What is germane to social messaging and music reception, and what I find most intriguing about the above mentioned research, is—without placing any relational value of worth on either—the difference in cognition (i.e., brain function) between creating music (improvisation) and reciting it (playing from memory). One researcher, Dr. Charles Limb, has gone to the trouble of making this understandable to the average person:

The difference between the two modes of cognition—how the improvising brain is engaged in less self-monitoring, more self-exposition, and more language-based functionality than the reciting brain—is fascinating. I posit that the language-based functionality discussed by Limb (starting ca. 11:25 in the video) requires attention to auditory input and is more like the state of mind experienced when one is just listening to music, as opposed to playing it from memory. And, according to one study on the subject, cognitive activity while listening to music is more universal than individual. As the author of the study explains, it doesn’t matter whether or not we’re listening to the same piece of music, or what details we’re paying attention to when we listen to the same piece of music—our brains will be doing the same thing. Listening to music is an activity that fosters cohesion and synchronicity. Ergo, music is very good for social messaging across large numbers of people who are listening to it at the same time.

Even though the concept of music as a semiological device isn’t new, the implications of the above-mentioned research are incredible. One of them is the idea that musicians, when improvising in concert (or consort, for that matter), have the potential to think as one—a kind of “disembodied cognition,” as one researcher I know, Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Cultured, Part 2

  1. MR

    Much of this depends on the individual, of course. For example, many jazz musicians perform variations on pre-determined patterns and formulas, or even play etude-like solos, as opposed to truly improvising. And, paradoxically, some classical musicians play entirely notated compositions in a spontaneous manner that is different every time, finding fresh ways of illuminating detail, structure, and expression related to the moment.


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