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Creative Improvisation in Jazz Can Draw On Either Side of the Brain

In a study of jazz musicians, researchers found that the left hemisphere of the brain was the primary source of creativity in performers who were highly experienced in improvisation; the right brain was more dominant in those who were less experienced.

The results suggest that creativity is a “right-brain ability” when a person deals with an unfamiliar situation but that creativity draws on well-learned, left-hemisphere routines when a person is experienced at the task.

The findings are published in the journal NeuroImage.

Most people think of creativity as being linked to the brain’s right hemisphere. For example, innovative people are considered “right-brain thinkers” while “left-brain thinkers” are thought to be analytical and logical.

However, many neuroscientists have argued that there is not enough evidence to support this idea and that an ability as complex as human creativity must draw on wide sections of both hemispheres.

Now a new brain-imaging study out of Drexel University’s Creativity Research Lab in Philadelphia sheds light on this controversy by studying the brain activity of jazz guitarists during improvisation.

The study showed that creativity is, in fact, driven primarily by the right hemisphere in musicians who are comparatively inexperienced at improvisation. However, musicians who are highly experienced at improvisation rely primarily on their left hemisphere.

By taking into consideration how brain activity changes with experience, the study may contribute to the development of new methods for training people to be creative in their field.

For example, when a person is an expert, his or her performance is produced primarily by relatively unconscious, automatic processes that are difficult for a person to consciously alter, but easy to disrupt in the attempt, as when self-consciousness causes a person to “choke” or falter.

In contrast, novices’ performances tend to be under deliberate, conscious control. Thus, they are better able to make adjustments according to instructions given by a teacher or coach.

Recordings of brain activity could reveal the point at which a performer is ready to release some conscious control and rely on unconscious, well-learned routines. Releasing conscious control prematurely may cause the performer to lock-in bad habits or poor techniques.

For the study, the researchers recorded high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs) from 32 jazz guitar players, some of whom were highly experienced and others less experienced. Each musician improvised to six jazz lead sheets (songs) with programmed drums, bass and piano accompaniment.

The 192 recorded jazz improvisations (six jazz songs by 32 participants) were subsequently played for four expert jazz musicians and teachers individually so they could rate each for creativity and other qualities.

The research team compared the EEGs of the highly rated performances with those rated to be less creative. In highly rated performances, there was greater activity in posterior left-hemisphere areas of the brain; for performances with lower ratings, there was greater activity in right-hemisphere, mostly frontal, areas.

By themselves, these results might suggest that highly creative performances are associated with posterior left-hemisphere areas and that less-creative performances are associated with right-hemisphere areas. This pattern is misleading, however, because it does not take the experience of the musician into consideration.

Some of these musicians were highly experienced, having given many public performances over decades. Others were much less experienced, having given only a very small number of public performances.

When the research team reanalyzed the EEGs to statistically control for the level of experience of the performers, a very different pattern emerged. Virtually all of the brain-activity differences between highly creative and less-creative performances were found in the right hemisphere, mostly in the frontal region.

This finding is in line with the team’s other research that used electrical stimulation to study how creative expression is generated in musicians’ brains and its study of how experienced and inexperienced jazz musicians reacted to being exhorted to play “even more creatively.”

“If creativity is defined in terms of the quality of a product, such as a song, invention, poem or painting, then the left hemisphere plays a key role,” said John Kounios, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the doctoral program in applied and cognitive brain sciences in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“However, if creativity is understood as a person’s ability to deal with novel, unfamiliar situations, as is the case for novice improvisers, then the right hemisphere plays the leading role.”

Source: Drexel University

Creative Improvisation in Jazz Can Draw On Either Side of the Brain

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Creative Improvisation in Jazz Can Draw On Either Side of the Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 2 Apr 2020 (Originally: 2 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 2 Apr 2020
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