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Music on the Brain - MCB's Andrew Bender

Music on the Brain

Of some interest to MOTB, a study was published online this week in the scientific journal NeuroImage that compared the brain activities of musicians to non-musicians in musical performance and expertise. Particularly compelling from this study was their use of musical improvisation to investigate musical expertise and creativity in the brain. The authors, Drs. Berkowitz and Ansari, acknowledge early on in the paper that the current capacity to measure ‘real life’ musical improvisation is rather limited as an MRI scanner tube is a poor substitute for a concert hall or a smoky jazz bar. Their experiment was designed to investigate the decision-making that goes with deciding which keys on a 5-key piano keyboard to press with emphases on creativity in rhythm and melody. Areas of the brain that were shown to be active on the functional MRI study included areas involved in muscle or ‘motor’ movement, response inhibition and error monitoring, and frontal brain regions involved in the selection and generation of different combinations. At the same time, the study reported that some areas of the brain became deactivated which they interpret as corresponding to attention and goal-oriented processes involved in actual improvisation. This study had trained student musicians and non-musicians play established musical patterns and create their own musical patterns while they were scanned in the MRI. There is some real difficulty in setting up and conducting a study like this, and I have to give the study’s authors some real credit for their novel paradigm for studying expertise vis a vis musical improvisation. In an unexpected finding, when the participants were improvising the melody a part of the brain called the temporo-parietal junction on the right side was deactivated in the musicians, but not the non-musicians. The authors suggest that this occurs due to the musicians trained brains pointing their attentional spotlight and goal-directed behavior at the task of generating something novel. On the other hand, the non-musicians didn’t show this same pattern of brain deactivation, ostensibly because their lack of expertise doesn’t necessitate such goal-directed behaviors.

So what does this all mean? In psychology we talk about different perceptual and cognitive processes as being either ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ processes. Top-down refers to perceptions that are driven largely by what’s already in our minds, based on our experiences and expectations. For example, if I walk into my darkened house at night, I might ‘see’ the lump on the couch as my cat, even before I have enough visual information to really confirm it because my experience is guiding my perception. Conversely, when most of the information comes directly from whatever it is we’re perceiving, that’s bottom-up. When you’re reading this article, all of the letters in each word are different, and their different combinations make up the words. We perceive each letter based on the different features of each letter – combinations of lines, angles, curves, open spaces, etc. But these two processes are complimentary and sometimes competing – I sometimes have to re-read a word because I thought it was another word altogether. In that case, my top-down processes, interfered with the bottom-up processes. Or, that lump on the couch may turn out to be a balled up sweater and not my cat, even though I ‘saw’ my cat.

In the study by Berkowitz and Ansari, they posit that the musical expertise of the trained musicians yields much more top-down processing in response to the task because when they play a series of improvised notes, there’s far more planning and strategy involved. As a result, they have to ignore the information they get from hearing the tones they play – they’re not responding to what they’re playing but executing something they already have in mind. The non-musicians, however, have to rely on what they hear because they’re not so goal-oriented and lack a real strategy.

As a fan of musical improvisation, this is all very interesting to me for all sorts of reasons. First, this experiment was only dealing with a 5-key keyboard and there was no interaction with other performers. Imagine how much more complex the phenomenon becomes when the whole range of notes from an instrument is available and when the goal-directed behavior is also concerned with taking into account what’s being played by collaborative musicians. More and more, it’s clear that musical improvisation requires an amazing coordination of long term memory for a composed piece, procedural memory for how to produce those sounds, perceptual skills and social cognition for keeping track of everything else that’s going on, and so many other processes. Next time you hear a jazz or funk musician playing a cool improvised riff, remember that not only isn’t it as easy as it seems, but despite whatever cool vibe the musician gives off, inside his or her head, there’s a lot more going on.

This weekend I’ll be at the People’s Art Festival at the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit at the Motorcityblog lounge – I’ll have some of my photography work on display and for sale. Please come by and say hello (even if you have no intention of purchasing anything). The MCB Lounge will feature DJs, great Detroit bands, burlesque dancers, a beer vendor, baked goods, and more! Come party with the MCB Crew at PAF! I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the work by my fellow MCB photographers and other sponsored artists as well as the whole array of amazing work by Michigan artists.

And now for a few choice shows around town this weekend:

My picks of some choice things going on around town this weekend:

Friday - 8/28

Von Bondies, 800beloved, The Juliets - Magic Stick – possibly or ostensibly the Von Bondies last Detroit show
Echos of Pink Floyd offer great covers at the Magic Bag

Saturday - 8/29
People’s Art Festival – Russell Industrial Center
The Square Boys – The Old Miami

Sunday - 8/30
People’s Art Festival – Russell Industrial Center
Yid Vicious – The Ark in Ann Arbor

Have a great weekend y’all!!