The Improvisational Brain

Feature / by Amanda Rose Martinez /

Watching a musician in the throes of an improvisational solo can be like witnessing an act of divine intervention. But embedded memories and conspiring brain regions, scientists now believe, are the true source of ad-hoc creativity.

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The trajectory of acquiring a language, according to Berkowitz, where you begin with learned phrases, achieve fluency, and are eventually able to create poetry mirrors perfectly the process of learning to improvise. In the same way a language student learns words, phrases and grammatical structure so that later he can recombine them to best communicate his thoughts, a musician collects and commits to memory patterns of notes, chords and progressions, which he can later draw from to express his musical ideas.

Berkowitz was halfway through medical school at Johns Hopkins when he decided that his long-evolving interest in the intersection of music, music cognition and cognitive neuroscience could no longer be ignored. He decided to focus on improvisation mainly as a result of seeing Levin, a professor in Harvard’s music department, perform. “I was pretty blown away,” said Berkowitz. “If you want to talk about improvisation, he’s one of the grand masters.”

As it turns out, Berkowitz’s theory seems to explain Levin’s road to improvisational mastery almost exactly. For his early and intense exposure to Mozart, whose style was the first in which he learned to improvise, Levin credits his father, a dental ceramist. “He was absolutely taken with him,” Levin said. “He would smuggle 78s of Mozart into the house when we needed food more than we needed shellac records.”

When Levin was 12, he began a rigorous course of study with the legendary music teacher, Nadia Boulanger, in France. Levin credits Boulanger for giving him “a toolbox that contained everything that I needed for the rest of my life as a musician.” Later, when Levin began to improvise in Mozart’s style, he discovered he had in place the requisite musical vocabulary and grammar thanks to Boulanger’s keyboard harmony, sight-reading and transposition exercises.

Fluency arrived for Levin during thousands upon thousands of hours of practice. At a certain point, he acquired a Mozart mindset, which consists, says Levin, of a collection of idiosyncratic musical details—rhythms, chords, turns of phrase—that recall the distinct language of the composer.

What came next, however, was the somewhat unsettling period when he began improvising in concert, which, with all its risk, was a completely different beast. “At first I thought, I’d better have a safety net,” Levin said. Three hours before a performance, Levin would be lying there in his hotel room bed, trying to work out a mental roadmap for his impending cadenza. He’d get it all planned out and think “fine, I don’t have to worry about it.”

But inevitably, during performance, Levin would stray from his roadmap, forcing a choice. “You can think about what you should be doing instead of what you are doing and screw up completely or you can ditch everything you were going to do because you aren’t there, you’re somewhere else.”

Eventually, Levin just let go, and in doing so, made the crucial transition from fluency to poetry. “Now I prepare absolutely nothing,” he said. “The orchestra is playing and I know I’ve got twelve seconds, I’ve got eight, I’ve got six, I’ve got four, and if nothing comes into my head, I just start playing. I start to play a scale. I start to play something. And as I play, I know something is going to come to me.”

At this level of musical cognition, the improviser often achieves a seamless trade-off between his conscious and subconscious knowledge. He knows he’s creating the music and feels very much in control, yet he also feels as if he’s watching himself play, a paradox that Berkowitz calls the creator/witness phenomenon. “They’ll be playing and something happens that they didn’t quite expect,” Berkowitz said. “Then they react to that and it kind of starts this dialogue where the improviser is steering the ship, but is also being steered by the ship.”

Levin confirms this phenomenon, recalling his miraculous recovery at Bremen. “I was certainly the protagonist. Nobody else was calling the shots,” Levin said. “But, at the same time, I was watching myself do this and said: ‘Whew! Lucked out.’ ”

With a rough idea of how musicians learned to improvise, Berkowitz decided to go a step further. He wanted to know specifically how the musician’s brain acted differently when it was improvising as opposed to when it was just playing a scripted melody. Berkowitz teamed up with Daniel Ansari, a neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario, and together they designed an experiment that would attempt to isolate the brain regions responsible for the aspect of improvisation that requires creativity.

Berkowitz had his test subjects, all classically trained pianists with an average of 13 years piano experience, perform a series of four musical tasks while inside an fMRI machine. A noninvasive brain imaging technique, fMRI uses powerful magnets to measure blood flow to brain regions that are being activated and deactivated during neural activity. As each subject lay recumbent in the machine, he or she would play a small, plastic piano-like keyboard, which had five keys. The first task constrained both melody and rhythm, and required subjects to play pre-memorized, five-note-long melodies while maintaining a fixed rhythm with the aid of a metronome. The other three tasks included improvisation in some form: one allowed the subject to create rhythms, while playing the memorized melodies; another had the subject create melodies in time to the metronome; and the third permitted freestyle generation of both melody and rhythm.

When Berkowitz and Ansari looked at the subjects’ brain maps, they found three regions that were activated during all tasks that involved improvisation, whether it was rhythmic or melodic. When it comes to determining the roles these regions might play in improvisation, Berkowitz is cautious, emphasizing that fMRI is just a tool—an inference tool—that allows assumptions to be made based on what is known about the region’s general function, but offers no definitive answers. Still, the implications are provocative.

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