Finding A Song: The Subconscious Art of Improvisation

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Improvisation, as the word is derived from Latin, literally means “something which has never been seen before.”

Rather than hammering out random keys or throwing in some last minute lines to make up for the beat you missed, improvisation could be more than just a case of making it up as you go along. In a sense, the very act of improvising is a solution-oriented approach to innovation. Author and musician Christopher Small has studied this art through the context of music. He explains: “Composed music is the account of the journey of exploration which might well have been momentous, but it is over before we learn of it, while improvisation is the journey itself.”

As musicians engage in improvisation, they utilize their auditory and visual processing systems to interpret and respond to the environment — their fellow musicians and the audience around them. They engage their implicit and explicit long-term memory systems to recall musical components of their repertoire and engage both auditory and visual-spatial components of their working memory to hold on to the sounds they are hearing. Their brain will then figure placements long enough for them to use these same notes and sounds. At the same moment, they are responding to their emotional arousal system. All of this is happening within the framework of communication.

This complex journey of deliberate improvisation, considered one of the most mysterious forms of creative behavior, is frequently described as occurring in an altered state of mind, beyond conscious awareness or control. Thanks to functional neuroimaging techniques and the work of scientists Charles Limb and Allen Braun, we now have a better understanding of what occurs on a neurological level inside the brains of musicians as they improvise. Interestingly, these imaging techniques demonstrate that while engaged in improvisation, the brain systems responsible for self-monitoring show significantly reduced activity. Meanwhile, the systems charged with memory, dreaming, and personal identity showed a drastic increase in activity.

This discovery occurred when Limb designed a series of tests that scanned the brains of six highly skilled and trained professional jazz musicians. During the tests, the musicians used a nonferromagnetic piano keyboard, which was specially designed for play in an MRI setting, to perform two different musical pieces. During the first scan taken, each musician played the same piece of composed music. Next, each musician used the first composition as a foundation for improvisation.

In order to analyze brain activity related specifically to the act of deliberate improvisation, the scientists essentially subtracted the first brain scan from the second. They were able to isolate the brain activity associated with improvisation and found that two significant changes occurred between the two scans. The first important one was that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as selecting what words you might say at a job interview.

Other areas of the brain lit up, showing intensified activity. The scans showed increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which sits at the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This area has been linked with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story. Shutting down this area could lead to lowered inhibitions — letting the irrational and the artistic spill out over the keys.


Their work further supports that improvisation augments the brain’s normal behavioral patterns. We see that this sort of “letting go” takes place and makes room for spontaneous creativity, but it goes further than just a matter of being artistic. It can be turned into a viable form of communication. While scientists are only beginning to uncover the neurological underpinnings of this long-held practice, musicians from across the centuries have been able to not only tap into this elusive state of consciousness but also use it to drastically improve the expression of the human experience.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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