Brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently, study finds


A recent study, titled “Decoding Musical Training from Dynamic Processing of Musical Features in the Brain,” shows that the brains of jazz pianists differ from the brains of classical pianists, even while the musicians play the same piece.

The study, conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, asked the question of how specifically the brain acitivty differed.

It has been known that music affects the brain and induces sensorimotor plasticity, or permanent brain change throughout an individual’s life. This change shows a clear divide between musicians and non-musicians.

The reason behind the divide between musicians and non-musicians is that composing and playing music requires the interplay of abilities found in areas of the brain related to higher-level functioning.

Playing a musical instrument prompts multiple structural alterations in the brain. The alterations are linked with enhanced motor and auditory skills. Alterations occur in the hippocampus, a brain region linked to learning and memory. Pianists also have an increased amount of myelin, a white matter that boosts nerve impulse speeds.

The difference in brain activity between musicians and non-musicians is obvious. However, the extent to which these capabilities were embedded within the brain of the individual musicians was severely underestimated.

Researchers discovered that musicians who further specialize in specific styles have differences in brain activity.

The differences between the two were brought to light when the scientists in charge of the study requested 30 pianists, half of who were classically trained and the other half who specialized in jazz for at least two years, to play a harmonically unexpected chord within a standard chord progression. This meant that in a pattern that might follow “A B C D E F” the musician was told to play “A B C D A F” instead. This revealed that the brain of the jazz pianist began to re-plan its actions faster than the brain of the classical pianist.

The difference between the speed of re-planning between the brains of the two types of musicians was measured using electroencephalography sensors. These sensors were fitted onto the back of the musicians’ heads. Electroencephalography, or EEG, is a method of measuring brain waves by attaching electrodes to the head on top of a layer of gel.

These electrodes then measure the fluctuations of the current within the neurons underneath.

These EEG sensors measured the brain activity of different regions of the brain, thus finding the difference between the jazz and the classical musicians lay in the area of the brain responsible for action planning.

Brain activity differences in musicians can be traced to the different manners in which a musician goes about composing and playing the different genres. There is a need to skillfully interpret a classical piece.

Meanwhile, a jazz piece requires more creative improvisation. This suggests different enduring markers when a musician practices one or the other style.

Music has been a known inducer of neuroplasticity. Research points to its stimulation of the frontal and temporal lobes, regions linked to behavior and language use, the parietal lobe, a region linked to sensations of touch and the limbic system, a region responsible for emotions such as fear and anger.

This indicates music is involved with brain regions related to perceptual, action-stimulation, emotional and attentional processes.

This study revealed there are significant differences in the way the brain processes music. Brain activity varies within different music genres.

As of now, the only differences analyzed between musical genres were between that of jazz and classical music.

According to Daniela Sammler, a neuroscientist at the MPI CBS and head organizer, “To obtain a bigger picture, we have to search for the smallest common denominator of several genres. Similar to research in language: To recognize the universal mechanisms of processing language we also cannot limit our research to German.”

Using this information, musicians can now isolate what they need to work on for their desired effect. For young people looking for people to form a band with them, the answer lies in the results of this study. Musicians looking for people who find it easy to replan quickly should be more attentive to those who were specifically trained in jazz.

On the other hand, musicians looking for a more traditional team of people who can analyze a piece critically will benefit from playing with classically trained musicians.