January 26, 2017

Time and again I’ve longed for adventure

Something to make my heart beat the faster

What did I long for? I never really knew.

— All the Things You Are (Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II)


Frederick Bianchi, left, and Rich Falco

Louis Armstrong once said the essence of jazz is, “never play anything the same way twice.” Indeed, free improvisation is at the heart of jazz and is what distinguishes it from many other musical forms, including classical music. It’s why each performance of a jazz standard like All the Things You Are constitutes a new creative adventure for the musician and a unique experience for the listener.

While improvising is clearly a distinct creative process, does it also reflect a unique state of mind? And if so, can that state be identified in the way the brain behaves during musical improvisation? And if one can connect the improvisational process to patterns of brain activity, can that knowledge help educators teach students to be better improvisers and more confident performers?

These are among the questions that drove two music faculty members at WPI to become brain researchers. For jazz guitarist Rich Falco, director of jazz studies at WPI and founder of the Jazz History Database, that transition began when he first noticed a set of common behaviors in musicians playing improvisational jazz.

“They have a relaxed posture, slow breathing, and a sort of calm,” he says. “The tension seems to drain away as their focus shifts internally. I like to say, they’re ‘in the zone.’”

Composer and musician Frederick Bianchi, director of computer music research at WPI and developer of music technology, including the Virtual Orchestra, also has observed and experienced the zone. “In the zone, action and awareness merge,” he says. “Inner analysis is bypassed and the brain’s predilection to micromanage is denied. Time becomes suspended, ideas begin to flow, and the performance unfolds without effort.”

By chance, one of Falco’s and Bianchi’s colleagues, Karl Helmer, PhD, is assistant professor in radiology at Harvard Medical School and assistant in research at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). He conducts cognitive research using the MRI scanners at MGH’s renowned Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging.

In the zone, action and awareness merge. Inner analysis is bypassed and the brain’s predilection to micromanage is denied. Time becomes suspended, ideas begin to flow, and the performance unfolds without effort.
  • Frederick Bianchi

Functional MRI images of the brain of a musician during musical improvisation. Periods of 

activation and deactivation can be seen in a region known as the dorsal lateral prefontal cortex .

​Helmer, Bianchi, and Falco reviewed the handful of previous studies on cognition and musical improvisation. These had identified different patterns of brain activation and deactivation during improvisation, particularly in a region known as the dorsal lateral prefontal cortex (DLPC), which controls executive functions (attentional control, decision making, planning, etc.). Activation of the DLPC is associated with a state of focused attention, while deactivation can indicate mind wandering.

The previous studies seemed inconclusive. A study using classically trained pianists observed DLPC activation during improvisation, with the level of activation increasing along with the level of complexity of the task the musicians were asked to perform. In a study using jazz musicians as subjects, the DLPC seemed to shut down altogether when the subjects improvised.

Is improvisation an active, creative process that requires focused attention on a goal, or is it necessary for the brain’s self-monitoring center to get out of the way to achieve the spontaneous, unfettered “zone” that Bianchi and Falco had observed in themselves and their students? The WPI team wondered whether the truth might lie somewhere in between.

Bianchi, Falco, and Helmer decided to design a new study aimed at closely simulating the actual experience of jazz improvisation; they received support from WPI’s dean of arts and sciences to carry it out at the Martinos Center. Eight experienced jazz musicians each spent an hour performing and improvising All the Things You Are while lying in a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner with a specially designed two-octave keyboard, headphones, and a mirror on which music could be projected.

The mind wandering associated with deactivation is akin to creative daydreaming. It tunes out the conscious act of playing and lets the musical performance ‘take you someplace.’
  • Rich Falco

Reviewing the results, the researchers observed more DLPC deactivation during improvisation than during the periods when the musicians were simply playing or embellishing on the melody, tasks that seemed to require more focused attention. But even during the improvisation, periods of deactivation alternated with shorter periods of activation, as if the brain were drifting in and out of the zone. “The mind wandering associated with deactivation is akin to creative daydreaming,” Falco says. “It tunes out the conscious act of playing and lets the musical performance ‘take you someplace.’”

But too much wandering leads to errors. In the study, errors seemed to jolt the improvising musicians’ brains from the inactive to the alert state. In practice, Falco says, a jazz musician needs to be able to move between brain states. At times, the executive functions need to turn off to permit unbridled creativity. But the musician must also be able to pop back into focused awareness to monitor where the improvisation is going and how he is responding to and building on the playing of other musicians in the ensemble.

The study showed that it is this flow between attention and mind wandering that truly characterizes improvisation, Bianchi says. “It’s similar to having one of those dreams where you are aware that you’re dreaming. You’re monitoring the dream, but you’re also careful not to leave the dream by coming too close to the waking surface.”

With the knowledge they’ve gained, Bianchi and Falco plan to develop a seminar to teach students how to enter the zone and achieve the critical balance between self-awareness and creative daydreaming. They will likely turn to the tools of meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises, which are known to help people achieve similar mental states.

“In my own teaching, I have found that focusing on one’s breathing helps you move from awareness of the task of playing to a state where you are a witness — a place where self-criticism is nonexistent,” Falco says. “Yoga can also help the state of self-awareness melt away, while other kinds of meditation focus on making the performer more aware of mind wandering. We believe that we can use a combination of these techniques to replicate the mental states we observed in our fMRI study.”