Dave Liebman and Michael Kaplan: How Does the Brain Make All that Jazz?

Victor L. Schermer By

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With recent advances in neuroscience, the relationship between music and the brain has become the subject of new research and generated a great deal of public interest. Best sellers like Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia (Knopf, 2007) and Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music (Dutton Penguin, 2006) have brought the attention of a wider public to the mysterious ways in which the billions of neurons (nerve cells) in our brain hear, process, and produce sounds that are meaningful and even memorable. Music accompanies us all our lives. It can be exciting, disturbing, soothing, comforting, joyful, sad, and even therapeutic. Music plays a significant role in many of the rituals, ceremonies, and rites of passage in all cultures. How in the world are a bunch of nerve cells supposed to do all that?

And what about jazz in particular? Improvised music challenges the brain's ability to multi-task in rapid succession. Recently, neuroscientists have become interested in the brain's capability for jazz improvising. For example, they have begun to study brain activity when musicians play composed versus improvised passages. To explore this fascinating work from the standpoints of a musician and a neuroscientist, All About Jazz brought together NEA Jazz Master saxophonist and educator Dave Liebman and scientist Michael Kaplan, who teaches neuroscience in the Biological Basis of Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania, to discuss how the brain works to make improvised jazz happen. These two bright minds engaged in a fascinating dialogue about the skills required and how the brain acquires them, the neurobiological basis of musical talent and learning, the "telepathy" that occurs when jazz players co-improvise, and the cultural and developmental factors that make jazz a personal and communal experience, always coming back to the light that neuroscience can shed on the subject.

All About Jazz: How did each of you become interested in jazz as it relates to neuroscience? What made these two areas, which are usually not thought of in connection with one another, come together for you?

Dave Liebman: Even though I don't qualify as an expert on neuroscience, I'm very fascinated by it. It always amazes me that in improvising, especially with other musicians and even cross-culturally, we players can deal with the astounding amount of input and information involved in coordinating the notes of the scale, all the emotions and moods, distractions, and random thoughts that are there. How does the brain sort it out and put it all together into a creative musical moment? I'm very curious about what is going on in the mind and the brain when we do this incredible process called improvising. Of course, everyone improvises in life, having a conversation, responding in a driving situation. So, I always wonder, when you have a lot of input and things to be concerned about, how does the mechanism work?

AAJ: So you're interested in how spontaneity and creativity operates in the mind and brain. Mike, how did you become interested in applying neuroscience to music?

Michael Kaplan: Music is of great interest to neuroscience, because it's such a unique form of behavior. It's ubiquitous, it's found in all human cultures, and very, very ancient, and yet its origin and purpose remain unknown. It's not absolutely necessary for survival, so why is it so widespread? And jazz is especially interesting because of improvisation: the recombination of previously learned materials, but used in a very spontaneous way. It's a paradoxical kind of attention that you have to employ when you improvise, where you have to be aware of many things, but without getting bogged down in all that information. It's that mixture of control and "letting go."

DL: That may be true in the best of worlds, but for me there may be times when I'm playing when I'm on automatic pilot. The fingers are doing the walking, and at the same time in the heat of battle there may be a lot of anxiety, waiting around, fatigue, a lot of mundane things. Like I say to students, your fingers are way ahead of your brain. So it swings from total concentration to times when your mind is all over the place, but you're still performing!

AAJ: Sometimes it's as if the brain is doing something that your conscious self isn't aware of doing.

DL: Yes. My fingers are working, while I'm AWOL!

AAJ: It's like driving a car. You're thinking about your wife, your kids, the next exit on the highway, but hopefully you're still working the steering wheel and the brakes!

DL: Exactly!

The Tools of the Neuroscientists' Trade

AAJ: Before we go any further. I'd like Mike to give us a feel about brain science as such, because most people aren't aware of what the scientists are doing in their laboratories. Take us into one of the labs, tell us what equipment is used, how musicians are utilized in the studies, what the research is all about. [Please note the links provided for further information when technical terms are introduced. -Eds.]

MK: Unlike a lot of neuroscience which uses animal models, subjects like the neuroscience of music have to be worked out using human subjects. So we use non-invasive methods that can show the anatomy and the activity in the brain without having to open up the skull or otherwise harm the subject. These include MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which looks at the anatomy; fMRI (functional MRI) , which looks at changes in blood flow as an indication of which parts of the brain are more or less active; and PET-scans, which can add some chemical specificity, like which neurotransmitters are being released in what parts of the brain. We can also use electroencephalograms (or EEGs). You may have seen photos of people wearing EEG headgear with pads and jelly stuff, and a lot of wires coming off it. These are for measuring electrical activity of the brain, again, right through the skull.

These are great tools, each with their advantages and disadvantages, but they're just tools. They don't tell you much unless you have a very well-designed experiment. So the trick is coming up with a matched control task, so you can say how much of all the activity you are measuring is specific to the object of study, and which is incidental. Consider improvisation. We want to find out which parts of the brain are involved in generating novel phrases during a solo. But there's so much else that is going on that we have to sort out! The musician is listening, so the auditory system is involved. The motor system is active just to move the musician's fingers. The somatosensory system feels not only the instrument in the hands, but also the tie that is too tight and a lousy cushion on the chair. The visual system is active if there is a chord chart, or just from looking at the band and the audience. And as Dave said, the musician might also be thinking about a lot of other things too. So the trick is to come up with a task and a matched control so that you can literally subtract one pattern of activation from the other and see what the difference is.
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