Ever watched a really talented jazz musician go into a great improvisational riff? That horn (those strings, keys, drums) goes into a tizzy that climbs, builds, spins around and slowly lets you back down again. It’s easy to see why society thought jazz was the devil’s music when it first began its rise to popularity in the 1920s…and to understand why people still love listening to it today. As a highly improvisational art form, jazz is extremely expressive and unpredictable, and it’s just plain fun to boogie to. Better yet, it appears to be quite a workout for your brain.
We already know that music can enrich the brain, create new neural pathways and stimulate recovery from some forms of brain trauma. Parents are often encouraged to get their children involved with music, for example, because young brains are highly elastic and can benefit from the stimulus provided by learning, practicing and playing music.
Jazz-loving researchers got curious about exactly what jazz does to the brain, so they decided to pop some musicians in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines. They had their musicians participate in a classic jazz move called trading fours, where soloists trade off with a series of short riffs, interacting with each other and their music. With the fMRI going, the researchers found that when the soloists were trading fours, the language centers of the brain lit up, indicating that the brain was treating the music like a form of communication. Put more simply, crafting a riff on the fly is a lot like building a sentence, where you have to be able to think quickly, respond to changing circumstances and communicate with your partner.
Jazz is highly interactive and time-sensitive. Much like a fast-flying conversation, musicians and instruments pick up ideas, toss them back and forth to each other and roll with it. If people aren’t communicating with each other on some level, even in a way that’s not immediately obvious, the music falters, and that beautiful syncopation and artful, deliberate use of tonality can turn into a mess. Using fMRI, researchers were finally able to see how that conversation happened, and how musicians managed to keep their cool even in a hot, crowded club.
Historically, many people have believed that syntax is limited to oral communication and signed languages like ASL. This expands that thinking, and may require a retooling of the way we think about language and communication. What other kinds of activities do we engage in that actually utilize syntax, and involve communication with other on a complex level?
We’ll need more fMRI studies to find out, and we also clearly have more to learn about what music does to the brain. One thing is for sure: contrary to being a waste of time, wailing away on the saxophone could just possibly be a great way to sharpen your communication skills — even if only other sax players will understand you.
Photo credit: Beverley Goodwin.