Brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

Brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

Brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

The brain circuits work differently for jazz and classical pianists, a study has found, which may explain why even professional musicians find it difficult to switch between the two styles.

Scientists at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Germany showed that while different processes occur in jazz and classical pianists' brains, even when performing the same piece.

"The reason could be due to the different demands these two styles pose on the musicians - be it to skilfully interpret a classical piece or to creatively improvise in jazz," said Daniela Sammler, a neuroscientist at MPI CBS.

One crucial distinction between the two groups of musicians is the way in which they plan movements while playing the piano.

Regardless of the style, pianists, first have to know what they are going to play and, subsequently, how to play. It is the weighting of both planning steps, which is influenced by the genre of the music.

Classical pianists focus their playing on the second step, the "How". For them, it is about playing pieces perfectly regarding their technique and adding personal expression. Therefore, the choice of fingering is crucial.

Jazz pianists, on the other hand, concentrate on the "What". They are always prepared to improvise and adapt their playing to create unexpected harmonies.

"Indeed, in the jazz pianists we found neural evidence for this flexibility in planning harmonies when playing the piano," said Roberta Bianco, first author of the study published in the journal NeuroImage.

"When we asked them to play a harmonically unexpected chord within a standard chord progression, their brains started to replay the actions faster than classical pianists," said Bianco.

"Accordingly, they were better able to react and continue their performance," she said.

The scientists investigated these relations in 30 professional pianists; half of them were specialised in jazz for at least two years, the other half were classically trained.

All pianists got to see a hand on a screen which played a sequence of chords on a piano scattered with mistakes in harmonies and fingering.

The professional pianists had to imitate this hand and react accordingly to the irregularities while their brain signals were registered with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors on the head.

"Through this study, we unravelled how precisely the brain adapts to the demands of our surrounding environment," said Sammler.

It also makes clear that it is not sufficient to just focus on one genre of music if we want to fully understand what happens in the brain when we perform music - as it was done so far by just investigating Western classical music.  

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox