Latest research shows musical improvisers' brains switch into different mode and that peer opinion affects our own judgements on music
Two issues that keep intriguing me are addressed in an article in the current edition of Miller-McCune: the mindset of the improvising musician, and the effect of peer opinion on one's own perceptions and judgements on the quality of music.
I had a chance to ask pianist Gabriella Montero -- who has made her career on fabulous improvising skills -- how she was able to produce sophisticated improvisations at a speed faster than conscious thought. She said that she can only do it by going into a sort of trance, where her conscious mind is switched off, and she can begin to channel a creative surge.
She also pointed out that an essential ingredient is good technique. If her fingers can't move at the speed of her brain's instructions, the effort wouldn't work.
As a church organist in a liturgical setting, I'm called on to improvise musical "bridges" as the priest and accolytes move around during mass, or while the greets finish up and bring forward the collection, and I find that, the more I try to think about whatever improvisation I'm trying to make, the more muddled the final result. I also have to admit that my technique leaves a lot to be desired. I can "hear" all kinds of gorgeous musical figures in my head that my fingers and feet simply can't respond to quickly enough.
The article in Miller-McCune draws on a recent scientific study that confirms that improvisers switch off the conscious side of the brain.
For the improvisation study, researchers Aaron Berkowitz and Daniel Ansaris studied the brains of 28 people as they improvised five-note melodies on a tiny keyboard. Thirteen were classically trained undergraduate pianists from the Dartmouth College music department. The other 15 were nonmusicians (though some had played instruments for up to three years in the past).
"The two groups showed significant differences in functional brain activity during improvisation," the researchers report. "Specifically, musicians deactivated the right temporoparietal junction during melodic improvisation, while nonmusicians showed no change in activity in this region."
This suggests trained musicians "are entering a different state of attentional focus than nonmusicians as soon as they engage in even the simple act of playing, and that this effect is particularly heightened during melodic improvisation," Berkowitz and Ansari write.
In other words, they effectively blocked out mental distractions, "allowing for a more goal-directed performance state that aids in creative thought."
That ability to intensely focus has a variety of obvious benefits. Indeed, this study could be used as further evidence of the value of maintaining music education in the schools.
Peer pressure on music perception
In short, some recent research confirms that, if teenagers see that their peers like a piece of music, they will be more inclined to like it, too.
Why would knowing other people's opinions influence their own? "fMRI results showed a strong correlation between the participants' rating and activity in the caudate nucleus, a region [of the brain] previously implicated in reward-driven actions," according to the paper. "The tendency to change one's evaluation of a song was positively correlated with activation in the anterior insula and anterior cingulate, two regions that are associated with psychological arousal and negative affective states."
The researchers' conclusion: "Our results suggest that a principal mechanism whereby popularity ratings affect consumer choice is through the anxiety generated by the mismatch between one's own preferences and the others'. This mismatch anxiety motivates people to switch their choices in the direction of the consensus."
As a full-time critic, it's something I've suspected for a long time -- except that I think it's true of all ages, not just teens.
For the full article, click here.
In case you're not familiar with Gabriella Montero's keyboard magic, here she is at a recital in Cologne in 2007, taking on the Aria from J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations: