What happens in a musician's brain when they play a song?

Let's get geeky on music. Ever wonder what's happening in a musician's brain when they're actually playing a song?

What about when a musician starts improvising - starts playing music directly "off the cuff"?

Thanks to the research from Dr. Charles Limb - an ear and throat doctor and surgeon who also happens to be obsessed with music - we now have a much better idea.

Over the last few years - Limb put jazz musicians and rappers into MRI machines to see what's happening in their brain when they improvise or freestyle rap.

Inside of the MRI machine - he'd have them simply play scales followed by having them improvise on scales - and then he'd have the musicians play a memorized piece of music - and then finally he'd have them play an improvised version of that.

What he found was when one of the subjects started improvising - parts of the brain that are associated with "self-expression" were activated - language regions and at times regions associated with visual imagery activated too.

But what's really interesting is that regions of the brain that are involved in inhibition - the parts of the brain that self-monitor and hold us back from saying and doing offensive or inappropriate things - were actually LESS active during improvisation.

Limb points out, "Without this type of creativity, humans wouldn't have advanced as a species."

He's right, understanding creativity and how humans improvise - especially in groups - isn't just fascinating: it's critical to understanding how humans have been so successful as a species.


Kpax's picture
Kpax 6 years 27 weeks ago

May I add to this...in that, I have always enjoyed listening to music while I work! It livens me up and makes me much more productive. Even if I'm not working, but let's say driving, I am usually in a much better frame of mind. I think music is very healthy!

Kpax's picture
Kpax 6 years 27 weeks ago

Music is a beautiful, magical sound. I'm so surprised and disappointed that people don't react more on this subject, because most people listen to it every day.

Where are the music lovers?

Willy Lohman's picture
Willy Lohman 6 years 27 weeks ago

Hi Thom,

Thank you for your insightful understanding of the U.S. Constitution and your continued activism for Democracy. ( I wrote a paper on Jefferson when I was in secondary school, some 50 years ago, his enlightened vision for a democracy of, by and for the American people was indelibly branded in my brain, as I know you, too, have been touched by the clarity of his vision.)

Relating to the research by Dr. Charles Lamb, his findings prove the Human survival need to express ourselves and that his experiments show how creativity and free thought can lower inhibitions. This is great news for assisting the very inhibited to become less so. It also speaks to the affect of our current ethos of mass media, intolerant conformity and distractions like "pokemon O", that saturate the brain with otiose drivel aimed at increasing the action of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which controls inhibitions and decision making.

It also may explain why the corporate and economic elite have attacked and de-funded arts programs in public education. It's difficult to control a society of citizens who have the ability to think critically and override their inhibitions when faced with a sinister ideology bent on turning humanity into "Labor Camps" as they did 80 years ago.

Music is universal and so is the quest for "Freedom of thought".


mjolnir's picture
mjolnir 6 years 27 weeks ago

The decision to shutdown the forum without warning was harshly abrupt. Please consider archiving the site so that those of us who invested a lot of time and research can purchase it from itunes.

dr_jmk's picture
dr_jmk 6 years 27 weeks ago

Admittedly off-topic, Thom's mention of musicians and music reminded me of an essay that I ran across on the back page of the August 1995 issue of Keyboard magazine (one of several publications targeted to musicians, to which I subscribed for several years.)

The author wrote:

Pigeons aren't really alive. Trust me on this; I've seen the blueprints. Every pigeon in existence is a feather-plated robot that rolled off a hidden assembly line in Parsippany, New Jersey, as part of a secret government program designed to convince the voting public that there is at least one species more useless than politicians.

Back in 1995, long before global climate change sparked widespread interest, the author (Connor Freff Cochran) went on to contemplate how we might avoid the demise of our planet. Here are the closing lines of his essay:

I suggest you be ready with your choice. The pigeons will want to know.

I have no idea from where Thom got the idea of pigeons from planet Xenu -- nor whether Cochran's idea was original -- but apparently this notion has been around for at least 20 years, and remains true to this day.

jeff k

dr_jmk's picture
dr_jmk 6 years 27 weeks ago

More on point, fellow psychologist Dr. Daniel Levitin -- also both a neuroscientist and former musician -- wrote the best-selling book, This Is Your Brain On Music, which addresses for the general public the role of attention and memory in creating and performing music.

I'd actually recommend to most folks his more recent book, The Organized Mind, which addresses, in part, how every decision we make exacts a small toll upon the efficiency of brain functioning. Because any decision -- large or small -- requires using some of the available glucose required to fuel our brain cells, modern everyday life faces us with so many choices or decisions (e.g., do I buy brand A or brand B at the supermarket) that by the end of the day our store of glucose may be exhausted.

Interestingly, Dr. Levitin points out also that responding to every text message, tweet, or email received also saps some amount of that reserve. Inasmuch as multitasking already has been exposed by numerous researchers as mythical, his perspective suggests that we'd do better by simplifying our lives.

Perhaps Thom might seek out Dr. Levitin for a guest segment, given their shared interest in attentional brain functioning.

jeff k

Progressive Republican's picture
Progressive Rep... 6 years 27 weeks ago

Further evidence of the myriad benefits to the human brain by exposure and participation in the various arts.

Yet for the last thirty-five years or so, budget-slashing Republicans have been taking this away from our children and test scores are going down so that we have dreck like NCLB on us.

Coincidence? Or part of Pres. Ronnie's "Let's-defund-public-education-to-create-generations-of -Americans-stupid-enough-to-vote-GOP" pogrom?

But then we're talking about those who view compropmise thusly:

Can I burn down your house?
Just the second floor?
Let's talk about what I can burn down.
You're not compromising!!

Wotta nyse buncha guize.

Thom's Blog Is On the Move

Hello All

Thom's blog in this space and moving to a new home.

Please follow us across to hartmannreport.com - this will be the only place going forward to read Thom's blog posts and articles.

From Unequal Protection, 2nd Edition:
"Beneath the success and rise of American enterprise is an untold history that is antithetical to every value Americans hold dear. This is a seminal work, a godsend really, a clear message to every citizen about the need to reform our country, laws, and companies."
Paul Hawken, coauthor of Natural Capitalism and author of The Ecology of Commerce
From The Thom Hartmann Reader:
"With the ever-growing influence of corporate CEOs and their right-wing allies in all aspects of American life, Hartmann’s work is more relevant than ever. Throughout his career, Hartmann has spoken compellingly about the value of people-centered democracy and the challenges that millions of ordinary Americans face today as a result of a dogma dedicated to putting profit above all else. This collection is a rousing call for Americans to work together and put people first again."
Richard Trumka, President, AFL-CIO
From The Thom Hartmann Reader:
"Thom Hartmann channels the best of the American Founders with voice and pen. His deep attachment to a democratic civil society is just the medicine America needs."
Tom Hayden, author of The Long Sixties and director, Peace and Justice Resource Center.