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  • Andrew Goldman, PhD

Thoughts on two recent studies on the neuroscience of improvisation

Despite training as a music cognition and music neuroscience researcher with a primary interest in musical improvisation, I was mostly unaware of Dalcroze’s theories and pedagogical methods until relatively recently. I am glad to have learned more about this community, given the wealth of insights it holds on improvisation. The Dalcroze method has significant implications for scientific work on the musical mind due not only to its ability to motivate specific experiments on the characteristics of experienced improvisers’ perceptual and cognitive processes, but also in its ability to show how certain capacities that are by themselves not obviously related to improvisation—like the embodiment of musical schemata—actually bear on the ability to improvise.

This may seem second nature to Dalcroze practitioners, but neuroscientific work on improvisation often focuses on the neural correlates of novelty and spontaneity rather than differences in the foundation that supports such capacities. The neural correlates of novel and spontaneous behavior are clearly important to understanding how people improvise, but understanding the constituent skills and ways of learning that lead to those skills are also important to consider. Improvisers may think differently, at least in part due to the way they train, in such a way that allows them to be novel and spontaneous. Thus, it is important to understand how and why these differences arise, and how and why they facilitate the ability to be novel and spontaneous.

Brain waves and sound waves. We can record brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) while people play and listen to music.

A study by Roberta Bianco et al. published in 2018 in the journal Neuroimage performed a study with similar aims and findings. Participants were shown sequences of pictures of hands playing chords on a piano, and were asked to imitate those chords by playing them on a keyboard. Sometimes the chords were unexpected either due to their harmony, or due to the manner in which they were played (i.e., a strange fingering). Among other findings, the authors found that jazz pianists, compared to classical pianists, showed a quicker reassessment of unexpected harmonies, and remained more flexible in their ability to respond as evidenced by a lower sensitivity to the specific manner in which the chords were played.

There are many details to consider in fully understanding the meaning of these empirical findings, but an important thematic takeaway from them is that we can investigate perceptual and cognitive differences between groups of musicians distinguished by their type of musical experience, and these findings can indirectly teach us something about how people improvise despite not directly investigating how people make up new things spontaneously. The connection to pedagogy becomes clearer with this perspective by highlighting the question of which skills facilitate such ways of knowing and thinking. One must keep in mind, however, that it is often difficult to attribute such group differences to training alone as other factors unrelated to training that contribute to improvisatory skill may motivate those musicians to study improvisation in the first place!


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, 383-394. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.12.058

Przysinda, E., Zeng, T., Maves, K., Arkin, C., & Loui, P. (2017). Jazz musicians reveal role of expectancy in human creativity. Brain Cogn, 119, 45-53. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2017.09.008


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