Training in Musical Improvisation May Teach Your Brain to Think Differently

Summary: Researchers say those who can improvise are better musicians than those who have limited improvisational experience. Additionally, the brains of those trained to improvise show different patters of electrical activity than non-improvising players.

Source: Columbia University.

John Coltrane and Jerry Garcia became improvising legends for their ability to mix musical elements on the fly. How the brain accomplishes such feats of creativity under pressure remains a mystery, though practice is increasingly thought to play a pivotal role.

Now, in a new study in the journal Psychology of Music, Columbia University researchers show that skilled improvisers are better than musicians with limited improvisational experience at distinguishing between chords that can be used interchangeably in a piece of music and chords that cannot. Further, when the improvisers recognized a chord unsuitable for substitution, their brains showed a pattern of electrical activity distinct from non-improvising musicians.

“It turns out that the degree to which we can predict how musicians respond to different types of musical substitution has nothing to do with how much they practice, but the way they practice,” said the study’s senior author, Paul Sajda, a biomedical engineer at Columbia Engineering and a member of Columbia’s Data Science Institute. “Improvisational practice seems to reinforce how the brain represents different types of musical structures.”

The researchers asked 40 musicians to listen to a series of chord progressions randomly interspersed with two types of chord variations: one from the same functional class (say, a similar chord with its notes inverted), and one from outside the class (say, a major chord juxtaposed against a minor chord). The improvisers, most of them trained in jazz, identified the oddball chords unsuitable for substitution faster and more accurately than the mostly classically-trained musicians with limited improvisational practice. How well they performed, the study found, was largely predicted by their level of improvisation experience.

Improvisation is hardly confined to music–it underlies much of daily life. Faced with a delayed train, you might decide to walk or take the bus; a missing ingredient, the closest alternative. With a flexible mindset, a creative solution is often at hand. With music, as with cooking, the trick is knowing the rules of substitution, says the study’s lead author, Andrew Goldman, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbian.

He explains: Having run out of lemons, an improvising chef will reach for a lime knowing that citrus fruit will work better in the recipe than, say, a banana, much as an improvising musician knows that a chord with a similar harmonic function will work better than one with a different function. In Goldman’s experiments, the improvisers were quick to differentiate between the musical equivalent of easy-to-substitute limes and hard-to-substitute bananas.

In a 2015 study of varsity baseball players, Sajda, the biomedical engineer, found that experts categorized pitches in much the same way. The experts were better than non-ball players at making split-second calls distinguishing a fast ball from say, a curve ball, and deciding whether to swing. This insight became the basis for deCervo, a tech startup founded by two former students of Sajda’s who are now using brain-training exercises to improve batting performance.

In a related study with Barnard College dance professor Colleen Thomas, Goldman compared how people with varying levels of training in dance, improvisational dance, and Contact Improvisation–a form of improvised dance with partners–responded as they watched Thomas perform everyday actions and dance moves. In still unpublished results, researchers found that the dancers, despite not moving themselves, showed greater activity in the brain’s motor cortex which controls movement. The effect was strongest in those with Contact Improvisation training.

Goldman was drawn to improvisation from his earliest piano lessons as a child growing up in southern California. “I would take the music I learned, transposing, changing the mode from major to minor, or mixing other musical elements together,” he says. Later, as a composer and a concert pianist, Goldman’s interest in the brain led him to the University of Cambridge for a Ph.D. in music cognition, and then to Columbia, where he just finished a three-year fellowship in the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience program.

When Goldman this spring put on Science! the Musical, a playful commentary about academic life that he wrote and performed in on piano, he was delighted when the lead singer embellished one song, “The Real World,” with extra notes for emotional emphasis. “She had never done that in rehearsal, he says. “It worked very well.”

a person playing piano
Skilled improvisers were better than musicians with limited improvisational experience at distinguishing between chords that can be used interchangeably in a piece of music and those that cannot, says a new study led by Andrew Goldman, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University (pictured). image is credited to Andrew Goldman.

This summer, Goldman heads to Western University in Ontario to continue studying the neuroscience of improvisation, a field that has expanded rapidly in recent years. Rather than focus on defining the subjective nature of improvisation, Goldman wants to go after questions with measurable answers. For example, how do different types of training influence musical perception? How do improvisers organize their knowledge of musical structures differently from non-improvisers?

George Lewis, a professor of composition and musicology at Columbia who co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisational Studies, says Goldman is off to a promising start.

“This work shows that far from being ineffable or mysterious, the practice of improvisation can be studied scientifically, yielding new knowledge about the brain and how we all get along in the world,” said Lewis, who was not involved in the study. “This is important all by itself, and relevant to other work in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and beyond.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Kim Martineau – Columbia University
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to Andrew Goldman.
Original Research: Abstract for “Improvisation experience predicts how musicians categorize musical structures” by Andrew Goldman, Tyreek Jackson, Paul Sajda in Psychology of Music. Published June 27 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Columbia University”Training in Musical Improvisation May Teach Your Brain to Think Differently.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 5 July 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Columbia University(2018, July 5). Training in Musical Improvisation May Teach Your Brain to Think Differently. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved July 5, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Columbia University”Training in Musical Improvisation May Teach Your Brain to Think Differently.” (accessed July 5, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Improvisation experience predicts how musicians categorize musical structures

Western music improvisers learn to realize chord symbols in multiple ways according to functional classifications, and practice making substitutions of these realizations accordingly. In contrast, Western classical musicians read music that specifies particular realizations so that they rarely make such functional substitutions. We advance a theory that experienced improvisers more readily perceive musical structures with similar functions as sounding similar by virtue of this categorization, and that this categorization partly enables the ability to improvise by allowing performers to make substitutions. We tested this with an oddball task while recording electroencephalography. In the task, a repeating standard chord progression was randomly interspersed with two kinds of deviants: one in which one of the chords was substituted with a chord from the same functional class (“exemplar deviant”), and one in which the substitution was outside the functional class (“function deviant”). For function compared to exemplar deviants, participants with more improvisation experience responded more quickly and accurately and had more discriminable N2c and P3b ERP components. Further, N2c and P3b signal discriminability predicted participants’ behavioral ability to discriminate the stimuli. Our research contributes to the cognitive science of creativity through identifying differences in knowledge organization as a trait that facilitates creative ability.

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