Brain: Almond kernel recognizes spontaneity

A study of jazz musicians shows how our thinking organ processes improvisations

Increased activation in the amygdala while listening to improvised melodies (compared to listening to practiced imitated melodies). © MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences
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A pianist plays an unknown melody free and without music sheet. How can a listener's brain recognize if it is improvised or played out of memory? In a study with jazz musicians, Max Planck scientists have now found out which regions of the brain are particularly sensitive to improvised behavior. These include the amygdala - and a network of areas known to simulate the perceived behavior of others internally.


How well a musician can recognize improvisations as such depends not only on his musical experience, but also on his willingness to empathize with other people, the researchers write in the journal "Frontiers in Psychology".

Brain activity of jazz pianists studied

The ability to distinguish spontaneous behavior from what is planned is important in everyday life in order to correctly assess the actions of other people. In order to explore basic social skills such as these under well-controlled conditions, Peter Keller and Annerose Engel of the research group Music Cognition and Action of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences work with musical constellations such as solo, duet or larger ensembles.

In their recent study, they examined the brain activity of jazz pianists while listening to either short improvised melodies or later recorded practiced versions of the same tunes and judging whether the melody was improvised. display

Fluctuations in volume and rhythm

"Musical improvisations contain almost imperceptible variations in volume and rhythm. These are probably caused by uncertainties in force control and action planning during music making, "explains Keller. In the experiment, the amygdala, a part of the limbic system, reacted to these fluctuations. Thus, according to the researchers, the amygdala appears to be involved in the detection of spontaneous behavior. Previous studies have also shown that the amygdala is particularly responsive to stimuli that are difficult to predict, new or ambiguous in meaning.

If the subjects considered a tune to be improvised - regardless of whether the melody was actually played spontaneously - a network involved in the inner simulation of actions was also particularly active. These included the so-called frontal operculum, the pre-supplementary motor area and the anterior island cortex.

Increased activation in the frontal operculum (left), pr -supplemental motor area (middle) and in the anterior cortex (right) while listening to improvised melodies. MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

Increased activity in the network

"In the brain, similar areas often become active during the perception of an action as in their own execution, " says Engel. "It helps us to appreciate other people's behaviors and quickly form an expectation of what they might do next." When a melody is perceived as difficult to predict For example, due to the variations in volume and rhythm heard, the potential for increased activity in this specialized network is unlikely.

Inclusion also important

Another observation of the researchers may be related to these brain processes: Not only the musical experience of the pianists played a role in the correct recognition of spontaneity, but also their influence hlungsvermgen. Those participants who used to play in bands with other colleagues and who indicated in a questionnaire that they often try to empathize with other people, could best distinguish between improvised and popular melodies. (Frontiers in Psychology, 2011; doi: 10.3389 / fpsyg.2011.00083)

Melodies to listen:

Improvised melody with accompaniment in swing style.

Featured version of the melody with accompaniment in swing style.

(MPG, 03.05.2011 - DLO)