This link (embedded player didn’t want to work) is from NPR’s Weekend Edition, originally aired back in 2008. The host interviews Dr. Charles Limb about his research studying the brain activity of jazz pianists while improvising using an fMRI. Probably unsurprising, they discovered that there was a characteristic pattern of brain activity, what Dr. Limb calls a dissociated frontal activity state.
You know, there’s this notion that, and a musician like Coltrane when he’s playing “Giant Steps” there, he’s in the zone. I mean, he is far away from, you know, the concerns of everyday life, and he is in some other place where all of these novel ideas are flowing and pouring out of him. You know, how does he do that?
Well, I think the brain really alters itself into this kind of creative mind frame where its purpose at that moment is to generate novelty and to decrease inhibition.
Being a fan of science, I find research like this interesting. There’s always someone who will ask the question, what does this mean for musicians? Will knowing about this help make you a better improviser? Dr. Limb is a saxophonist too, and responds:
A lot of people have asked me if studying something like jazz takes away the magic of it for me. And to me, it doesn’t at all. And in a lot of ways, it augments it. Because I’m just stunned by all the things that the brain can do. It’s just a remarkable structure that allows us to generate beauty and spontaneity.
If you prefer to read, rather than listen, you can view the transcript here.