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Jazz improvisers score high on creativity

Musicians trained to improvise responded more quickly to unusual chords and showed stronger creativity than others

12:00pm, January 2, 2018
jazz musicians

ALL THAT JAZZ  Improvisation and creativity may go hand in hand, an analysis of musicians’ brain activity reveals.

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Improvisation may give jazz artists a creative boost not seen among musicians more likely to stick to the score. Jazz musicians’ brains quickly embrace improvisational surprises, new research on the neural roots of creativity shows.

Neuroscientist Emily Przysinda and colleagues at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., measured the creative aptitudes of 12 jazz improvisers, 12 classical musicians and 12 nonmusicians. The researchers first posed creativity challenges to the volunteers, such as listing every possible use for a paper clip. Volunteers then listened to three different kinds of chord progressions — common ones, some that were a bit off and some that went in wild directions — as the team recorded the subjects’ brain waves with an electroencephalogram. Afterward, volunteers rated how much they liked each progression.

Jazz musicians, more so than the other participants, preferred the unexpected riffs, brain waves confirmed. And the improvisers’ faster and stronger neural responses showed that they were more attuned to unusual music and quickly engaged with it. Classical musicians’ and nonmusicians’ brains hadn’t yet figured out the surprising music by the time the jazz musicians had moved on, the researchers report in the December Brain and Cognition.

The jazz musicians’ striking responses to unexpected chords mirrored their out-of-the-box thinking on the creativity challenges. Training to be receptive to the unexpected in a specific area of expertise can increase creativity in general, says Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist Roger Beaty, who was not involved in the study.

Expecting the unexpected

While listening to three musical riffs, some more unusual than others, jazz musicians’ brains processed the unexpected music faster than classical musicians’ and nonmusicians’.

E. Przysinda et al/Brain and Cognition 2017

Editor's note: This story was updated January 3, 2018, to correct the titles of the audioclips.


E. Przysinda, et al. Jazz musicians reveal role of expectancy in human creativityBrain and Cognition. Vol. 119, December 2017, pg. 45-53.doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2017.09.008.

Further Reading

B. Bower. Riff Riders: Brain scans tune in to jazz improvisers. Science News. Vol. 173, March 8, 2008, p. 148.

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