Thursday, March 05, 2009

Brain correlates of musical improvisation.

Berkowitz and Ansari report an fMRI study of the brains of trained pianists while they are improvising. To get control conditions for comparisons they designed a series of four activities. In the two general types of tasks, they had subjects either improvise melodies or play pre-learned patterns. Comparing brain activity in these two situations allowed them to focus on melodic improvisation. Subjects did each of these two general tasks either with or without a metronome. When there was no metronome marking time, subjects improvised their own rhythms. Comparing conditions with and without metronome allowed them to look at rhythmic improvisation. A key point is that when the subjects played patterns (instead of improvised melodies), they could choose to play them in any order. Thus there was still some spontaneity in decision making, but the choices were more limited than during improvisation.

The authors observed an overlap between melodic improvisation and rhythmic improvisation in three areas of the brain: the dorsal premotor cortex (dPMC), the anterior cingulate (ACC), and the inferior frontal gyrus/ventral premotor cortex (IFG/vPMC). From a summary of the work by Bannatyne:
“The dPMC takes information about where the body is in space, makes a motor plan, and sends it to the motor cortex to execute the plan. The fact [that] it’s involved in improvisation is not surprising, since it is a motor activity. The ACC is a part of the brain that appears to be involved in conflict monitoring — when you’re trying to sort out two conflicting possibilities, like when you to read the word BLUE when it’s printed in the color red. It’s involved with decision making, which also makes sense — improvisation is decision making, deciding what to play and how to play it.” The IFG/vPMC is perhaps one of the most interesting findings of their study. “This area is known to be involved when people speak and understand language. It’s also active when people hear and understand music. What we’ve shown is that it’s involved when people create music.”

Improvising, from a neurobiological perspective, involves generating, selecting, and executing musical-motor sequences, something that wouldn’t surprise musicians. But in terms of brain research, it’s a new piece of information.

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