EEG monitoring shows difference between jazz and classical brains

Neurologists who measured electrical signals in the brains of jazz and classical pianists as they played have found evidence for the widespread belief that musicians’ brains are ‘wired’ in different ways.

Whereas non-musicians often assume that someone who is proficient on an instrument can switch easily between different styles, professionals will maintain that doing so is challenging, even for a performer with decades of experience.

Research at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig may have found an explanation for this effect. Scientists observed that while playing the piano, different processes occur in jazz and classical pianists’ brains, even when performing the same piece.

Thirty professional pianists took part in the project, half of them jazz specialists and the other half classically trained. All were shown a hand on a screen playing a sequence of chords on a piano scattered with mistakes in harmonies and fingering. They had to imitate this hand and react accordingly to the irregularities while their brain signals were registered with electroencephalographic sensors attached to their heads. The whole experiment was carried out in silence using a muted piano.

Daniela Sammler, a neuroscientist at MPI CBS who led the study, said that the different EEG patterns could be due to the different demands the two styles pose – skilfully interpreting a classical piece or creatively improvising in jazz. “Different procedures may have established in their brains while playing the piano which makes switching between the styles more difficult,” she said.

The observations lend weight to the idea that genre influences the relative importance attached to the two different steps involved in playing a piece. Regardless of style, pianists first have to know the keys they have to press, then work out the fingers they should use. Classical pianists may focus their playing on the second ‘how’ step, with its emphasis on technique and personal expression, in which choice of fingering is crucial. Their jazz counterparts concentrate on the ‘what’ aspect and are always prepared to improvise and adapt their playing to create unexpected harmonies.

Analysing brain signals provides evidence for this flexibility in pianists’ ability to plan harmonies, explained Roberta Bianco, first author of the study. When we asked them to play a harmonically unexpected chord within a standard chord progression, their brains started to replan the actions faster than classical pianists. Accordingly, they were better able to react and continue their performance.

Classical pianists performed better when it came to following unusual fingering. Their brains showed stronger awareness of the fingering and they made fewer errors while imitating the chord sequence.

As well as demonstrating how precisely the brain adapts to the demands of our surrounding environment, said Sammler, the study shows that it isn’t sufficient to focus on one genre of music if we want to fully understand what happens in the brain when musicians are playing. To obtain a bigger picture, we have to search for the smallest common denominator of several genres, she explained. Similar to research in language: to recognise the universal mechanisms of processing language we also cannot limit our research to German.

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