Al Kooper didn’t know what to play. He’d told some half-truths to get into Bob Dylan’s recording session — the musicians were working on some song tentatively titled “Like A Rolling Stone” — and Kooper had been assigned the Hammond organ. There was only one problem: Kooper didn’t play the organ. He was a guitarist.
The first takes were predictably terrible — Kooper was just trying not to get kicked out of the studio. But on take four, he suddenly found his chords. Kooper’s playing was pure improv — “I was like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch,” he would later remember — but he ended up inventing one of the most famous organ riffs in modern music.
There is something profoundly mysterious about this kind of creativity. Kooper didn’t have time to think — the chorus was about to happen — and so he just started banging on the ivory keys. This same impromptu process defines some of the most famous creations of modern art, from John Coltrane letting loose on “A Love Supreme,” to Jackson Pollock dripping paint haphazardly on a canvas. These are works made entirely in the moment — their beauty is spontaneous.
But how does such an act of imagination happen? How does the mind create on command? William James described the creative process as a “seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.” In the last year, two separate experiments have attempted to see inside the cauldron, to figure out how a loom of electric cells finds the exact right notes on the upright organ.
The first study, led by Charles Limb of the NIH and Johns Hopkins University, examined the brain activity of jazz musicians as they played on a piano. The musicians began with pieces that required no imagination such as the C-major scale and a simple blues tune they’d memorized in advance. But then came the creativity condition: The musicians were told to improvise a new melody as they played alongside a recorded jazz quartet.
While the musicians riffed on the piano, giant magnets whirred overhead monitoring minor shifts in their brain activity. The researchers found that jazz improv relied on a carefully choreographed set of mental events, which allowed the musicians to discover their new melodies. Before a single note was played, the pianists exhibited a “deactivation” of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a brain area associated with planned actions and self-control. In other words, they were inhibiting their inhibitions, which allowed the musicians to create without worrying about what they were creating.
But it’s not enough to just unleash the mind — successful improv requires a very particular kind of expression. That’s why the fMRI machine also recorded a spike in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a fold of frontal lobe just behind the eyes. This area is often linked with self-expression — it lights up, for instance, whenever people tell a story in which they’re the main character. The scientists argue that this part of the brain is required for jazz improv because the musicians are channeling their artistic identity, searching for the notes that best summarize their style. “Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form,” Limb says. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”
In the second experiment scientists at Harvard investigated the varieties of musical improvisation. They recruited 12 classically trained pianists and had them spontaneously create both rhythms and melodies. Unlike the Hopkins experiment, which compared brain activity between improv and memorized piano melodies, this brain scanning experiment was primarily designed to compare activity between two different kinds of improv.
As expected, both improv conditions led to a surge in activity in a variety of brain areas, including parts of the premotor cortex and, most intriguingly, the inferior frontal gyrus. The premotor activity is simply an echo of execution — the novel musical patterns, after all, must still be translated by the fingers. The inferior frontal gyrus, however, has primarily been investigated for its role in language — it includes Broca’s area, which is essential for the production of speech. Why, then, is it so active when people create music on the piano? The scientists argue that expert musicians create new melodies by relying on the same mental muscles used to create a sentence; every note is another word.
These two brain-scanning studies provide an elegant view into our seething cauldron. They reveal a brain able to selectively silence that which keeps us silent. And just when we’ve found the courage to create something new, the brain surprises us with an expression of ourselves. We suddenly find our reflection — not in the mirror, or even in our words. It’s in the music.
Note: This article was originally published by Seed magazine and is reposted here with permission. Catch neuroscientist Charles Limb and jazz legend Pat Metheny live, as they explore music and improvisation at Music and the Spark of Spontaneity.
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