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flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Amateur Neuroscience meets Actual Neuroscience



Learning (and teaching) the flute can be quite a creative challenge sometimes because so much of the important action (the use of the diaphragm, position of the tongue, etc) happens inside the body, where you can’t see it.  This challenge is found with all instruments when dealing with the cognitive aspects of music—you can’t see how you think!

Or can you?

One of my favorite events at the National Flute Association’s Annual Convention was a lecture by Peter Westbrook entitled “Brain Function during Improvisation.” Peter Westbrook is a flutist, saxophonist, musicologist and member of the NFA’s Jazz Committee.  His lecture brought together a recent study on brain function during music performance from Johns Hopkins University, an older study on brain function during meditation, and his own ideas and considerable knowledge of those topics.

In the Johns Hopkins study, the researchers did functional MRI’s of jazz pianists as they performed a number of tasks.  A functional MRI tracks the amount of blood flow to the different parts of the brain, and neuroscientists believe that this demonstrates which parts of the brain are being used. While that didn’t allow the scientists to see how the musicians were thinking, they were able to see where they were thinking.

They found that while playing a memorized jazz tune, the lateral cortex was used.  This is the part of the brain that monitors and judges activity while learning a task.  It’s the part that says things like, “Now make sure you are keeping your fingers nicely curved, and that your wrist is relaxed, and don’t forget about that B-flat in the next bar!”

By contrast, during improvisation, the prefrontal cortex was most active (and the judging lateral cortex was virtually shut down).  The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that handles the free flow of information, tasks of creativity, the integration of diverse elements, and, get this, autobiographical storytelling.  So, a jazz solo is like a musical autobiography of the performer.

jazz attack

The study did not include any classical musicians, so I don’t think it would be scientifically appropriate (even by the low standards of amateur neuroscience) to draw any conclusions about classical music from it, or even to use it as the basis of a comparison between classical music and jazz.

This study is useful because it makes a previously intangible aspect of music-making into something more concrete.  It gives us an image and a description of a vital cognitive process.

It seems to me that the study’s description of brain activity during improvisation is also a description of what it feels like to perform classical music (from a score or from memory) at a high level.  Have you ever had a great performance experience?  It sure feels like ‘the free flow of information,’ ‘autobiographical storytelling,’ and the ‘integration of diverse elements.’  In fact, this was a big topic of audience discussion at Westbrook’s lecture.

Westbrook posed several questions.

  • What does this study imply for “the curriculum?”
  • Would it be beneficial to teach jazz and classical to all musicians, rather than separating them?
  • Is there a way to teach music that gets the student to use her brain in this free, non-judgemental way?

I have a few questions of my own:

  • Do you need to go so far as to learn the skill of improvisation to experience that pre-frontal cortex flow in classical (i.e. non-improvised) performance?
  • Is there a way to bring that approach, that sense of freedom, into the study of classical music that you are already doing?
  • Does just knowing that cognitive goal get you a little closer to it?
  • Is using your pre-frontal cortex a skill you can practice?

What do you think?  Have you had experiences like this?  Have you incorporated any improvisation into your classical practice?

I’d like to know!  Please leave comments below, or email me at  And stay tuned for later articles incorporating reader comments, and the second study Westbrook cited, about brain function during meditation.

Photo credits:  MRI by erat, Jazz Attack by evoo73

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5 Comments to

“Amateur Neuroscience meets Actual Neuroscience”

  1. On December 8th, 2009 at 4:51 pm Lisa Dee Says:

    People interested in these issue might want to read two super interesting books:

    “Musicophilia” by neurologist Oliver Sacks
    “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge

    Sometimes, when I am practicing or learning new music, I imagine I can feel the connections changing inside my head — what my Rolfer calls “cranial viscera.”

  2. On December 17th, 2009 at 4:21 pm Helen Bledsoe Says:

    Unscientifically, I would guess that the answer to all your questions is yes, to some extent. From what little I know about neuroscience, the brain is much more plastic than we think.
    I do try to practice improvisation, sometimes even in a classical setting like a short Mozart or C.P.E. Bach cadenza. I do feel this process switches something on. Something Robert Dick proposed decades ago was to take the passage you are playing, turn the music over, improvise a passage in the same style and character, then turn the music back over and play what’s written. It will probably be different, in a cool way.
    You mentioned that “free flow feeling”, and yes I’ve had it, I guess. One thing that happens with me during improv (and seems to be typical of most people I talk to) – I play something I think is really cool, then comes a passage I am sort of just going with the flow, not really paying attention, sometimes thinking this might be lame.
    But when I hear the tape, the stuff I thought was good was actually lame and the stuff I thought was lame was really good. Maybe my flow is bass ackwards?
    Anyway, keep posting, this is interesting!

  3. On December 17th, 2009 at 8:03 pm admin Says:

    Thank you for the reading suggestions. And how cool to hear that you can feel your brain developing!

  4. On December 17th, 2009 at 8:05 pm admin Says:

    Thanks for reading, Helen, and for your thoughtful reply. I’m going to try that Robert Dick Trick sometime–it seems like a good method for when you are stuck, and struggling to come up with a convincing interpretation.

  5. On March 24th, 2010 at 11:02 am koen Says:

    as an almost exclusively improvising musician I can relate completely to the autobiographical storyteller part. I often feel as if I’m speaking, meaning the music flows as my voice, unhindered by thoughts. It is something you come across a lot reading about improvisation: not thinking. Many improvising musicians have stated “it was like it wasn’t me playing” after a good session or concert, or that the “music came naturally”. So the art of meditation and improvisation are very similar in ways. BUT, there is a difference. Meditation is more about listening that it is about creation i.e. more passive. And making music is, as I hope we all agree, very creative, interpreting a score or otherwise. I think there lies the key, and also a few answers to the question you have posted.
    In education of any kind (of music) inspiring creativity in students is most important. The ‘skill’ of improvisation, which I could describe as the freedom of self to react to any given (situation) tone or chord, uninterfered by judgmental mechanisms (of oneself or others), will come naturally.
    Anyways, sorry for this long response, but the underlying topic here (improvising classical musicians;) greatly interests me. I’d be happy to send some more experiences I’ve had improvising with classically educated friends, and suggestions of how to ‘learn’ improvising to you by mail. Just let me know if you’re interested.
    Oh yes, and great work you’re doing here! Thank you.

    ps: you might also like this article about synchronized brainwaves between musicians:

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