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Do Brain Functions Differ in Jazz and Classical Pianists?

A recent research study investigated whether genre-specific musical training has a direct impact in shaping the brain functions of musicians.

Our brain has a remarkable ability to adapt to meet specific demands. But just how finely tuned is our brain function in response to our environment? And how much of that depends on previous experience?

It is well established that musically trained individuals possess a sensorimotor system with greater flexibility compared to the general population. A recent German study published in the journal NeuroImage showed the association between musical training and brain function.

How Do Classical and Jazz Pianists Differ?

Fifteen classical and jazz pianists were chosen for the study. The scientists presented the pianists with a series of photos of a hand on the piano and asked them to play the exact musical chords displayed. The series of photos were scattered with mistakes in a chord progression. The musicians’ brain functions in response to these unpredicted changes were recorded using EEG (electroencephalography) sensors placed on the head. The whole study was conducted without sound to concentrate the study on visual senses and motor response. The scientists focused on two major steps involved in playing the piano: knowing what they are going to play, and how they are going to play it.

The jazz pianists were able to adapt to the mistakes in harmonies faster but made more mistakes when trying to follow the finger movements. Their brains quickly re-planned what they were going to play. On the other hand, classical pianists were more conflicted in the face of unpredicted harmonies but knew how to better implement odd fingerings.

These results make sense when we think about the different experiences these musicians face in each genre. The classical pianists were trained to play music with precise techniques, whereas the jazz pianists were constantly exposed to improvising and adapting to unexpected harmonies.This study has important implications in understanding the underlying mechanisms of the effect of music in humans. In the future, similar studies should be conducted for different genres or countries.

The results shed light on the different brain functions involved in producing different genres of music. These study results indicate that focused, continued practice may lead to neurobiological changes. It can mean that learning a certain style of music can help enhance certain brain functions. And most importantly, it proves that our brains are incredibly precise and efficient in responding to our environment.

Written by Alena Kim, BSc

Reference: Bianco, R., Novembre, G., Keller, P. E., Villringer, A., &Sammler, D. (2018). Musical genre-dependent behavioural and EEG signatures of action planning. A comparison between classical and jazz pianists. NeuroImage, 169(2018), 383–394. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.12.058



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