Music, Improvisation & Brain Health

Monica Lopez-Gonzalez and Charles Limb, both of Johns Hopkins University, authored a recent article called “Musical Creativity and the Brain” that appears in the online journal Cerebrum, from the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives,
The two researchers are among a small group of scientists who are using brain imaging to study the neural underpinnings of artistic creativity. Limb, and his colleague Allan Braun, put keyboard players in an fMRI and look at what parts of the brain are activated when participants “either freely improvised to the auditory accompaniment of a prerecorded jazz quartet or reproduced memorized jazz sequences.”

Lopez-Gonzalez has added to the research on improvisation by trying to “identify the neural substrates underlying the spontaneous generation of rhyming sequences in hip-hop performances.” Lopez-Gonzalez had professional free style rappers perform to rhythmic accompaniment “as they either spontaneously improvised lyrics or recited a pre-memorized novel rap.”

Two conclusions can be taken from the research: 1) music performance engages multiple parts of the brain, and 2) improvisational music activates different parts of the brain than is activated by reading from a score or rapping a pre-memorized script.

The first point is important for discussions of brain health and cognitive fitness, which are improved when the brain is stimulated and exercised.  Mental stimulation is more effective when multiple parts of the brain (neural/glial cell networks) fully are engaged. Just as with physical exercise, mental exercise needs to take a cross-training approach, engaging as many different, connected brain areas as possible.  The work by Limb and Lopez-Gonzales contributes to a growing body of research that shows that music production and appreciation engage large distributed areas of the brain.  It is fair to assume, therefore, that making and listening to music are activities that are likely to promote the health and vitality of our brains.

Read more on the MindRAMP Blog! 


The research is showing that listening to music has not been shown to demonstrate any significant benefits in cognitive improvement.   However, it is showing some very accessible ways  acheive optimal cognitive improvement.  Two studies with the most promising results:  learning to play a musical instrument and playing video games that engage the speed of processing function (i.e. incrementally improving your speed in a video game).  In a study in individual piano training, those seniors who took lessons for 6 months and practiced 3 hours a week, showed cognitive improvement at 6 months.  They were instructed not to practice for 3 months and were tested again.  Their cognition continued to improve even without practice!  On the otherhadn, the control group which had no piano instruction, experienced continual cognitive decline throughout the 9 month period. 


Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.