What Goes on in Your Head During Creative Musical Improvisation? Part 2

improv fmri slices

This is the second of a two-part article about what goes on in your head when you’re improvising music. In the first part we looked at what’s happening in the brain during creative musical improvisation. In this part we’ll take a speculative look at how the conscious experience of creative improvisation might be tied to what’s happening in the brain.

How do musicians describe what creative improvisation feels like? Sometimes when you ask this question you get what appear to be conflicting answers.


Charles Mingus

At times musicians talk about creative improvisation as expressing something essential about themselves.  Here are some examples.

Louie Armstrong: “You blows who you is.”

John Coltrane: “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am: my faith, my knowledge, my being.”

Charles Mingus: “In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am.”

Miles Davis

Miles Davis

At other times musicians describe creative improvisation as something that takes them beyond themselves. Here are some examples of this idea.

Dave Brubeck: “There is a time where you’re beyond yourself, better than your technique, better than your usual ideas.”

Charlie Hayden: “Creative Arts raise a person to another level of consciousness.”

Miles Davis: “Play what you know & then play above that.”

These two ideas about creativity are often echoed by artists in other fields of creative endeavor when they talk about how the practice of their art involves putting their deepest selves on display or when they speak of their art flowing through them from a source outside of themselves.

There appears to be a conflict here. On the one hand it sounds like creative improvisation involves going beyond or outside of yourself while on the other it sounds like creativity involves expressing who you truly are. Are these two ideas contradictory? The research in neuroscience  that was described in What Goes on in Your Head During Creative Musical Improvisation? Part 1  suggests that they may not be.

study-driving-to-work-packs-on-poundsMost people spend most of their time doing something.  Most of these activities are ordinary every-day affairs like going to work, walking the dog or playing a musical instrument. In almost every case doing something involves carrying out behavior that is designed to achieve a goal. For example, we engage in the behavior necessary to drive a car and navigate it safely through traffic in order to achieve the goal of arriving at work on time, or we carry out the sequence of movements involved in playing a musical instrument with the goal of playing a passage through without making a mistake.

Because we spend most of our time doing something, we usually experience ourselves as a person engaged in an activity. In other words, our experience of ourselves usually involves a combination of our overriding goals and the behavior we are carrying out to achieve those goals. One way to think about this is that we know and are familiar with ourselves as a person engaging in fairly ordinary, goal-directed behavior.

medial prefrontal cortexdeactivated areasAs we saw in What Goes on in Your Head  During Creative Musical Improvisation? Part 1, goal directed behavior involves activation in both the medial and lateral areas of prefrontal cortex. Medial prefrontal cortex is involved with maintaining goals and intentions independently of the behavior that is carried out to achieve the goals or realize the intentions. The orbitofrontal area of lateral prefrontal cortex is involved with consciously monitoring ongoing behavior and inhibiting actions that are thought to be incorrect or socially inappropriate. The dorsolateral area of lateral prefrontal cortex is involved with monitoring and adjusting sequences of learned behavior that require keeping the sequence in memory while the entire series of actions is carried out.

This means that our experience of ourselves when we’re engaged in ordinary goal-directed behavior coincides with levels of activation in the areas of prefrontal cortex that are actively involved with carrying out the behavior. However, creative musical improvisation is not ordinary goal-directed behavior and it corresponds to a very different pattern of activation in prefrontal cortex. Medial prefrontal cortex is more active and the orbitofrontal and dorsolateral areas of prefrontal cortex are less active when improvising than they are when playing a well-learned passage.  The musician is literally in a different state of mind while improvising.

Being in this different state of mind means that the improvising musician experiences him or herself in a way that is different from normal.  This difference may be an important factor in explaining why musicians sometimes talk about creative improvisation as going beyond yourself and at other times talk about it as expressing who you truly are.

you_are_what_you_do_by_luiz_petronilho-d38sdm9If a person’s sense of self is strongly grounded in the way they experience themselves during the ordinary goal-directed activity that takes up most of a person’s time, being sensitive to the decreased level of activation that occurs in lateral prefrontal cortex during improvisation may contribute to a sense of going beyond yourself. The ordinary self is experienced as a combination of goals, behaviors carried out to achieve those goals, and constraints placed on those behaviors to insure that they are carried out correctly, in proper order, or in socially acceptable ways.  Relaxing the constraints through deactivation of the orbitofrontal and dorsolateral areas of prefrontal cortex might give the musician a sense of self that is unfettered, separate and distinct from particular behaviors, and different from the way the self is normally experienced. This sense of self as experienced during improvisation might be described as going beyond yourself (Dave Brubeck), playing above yourself (Miles Davis), or rising to a new level of consciousness (Charlie Hayden).

aspireConversely, if a person’s sense of self is strongly grounded in their goals and aspirations, being sensitive to the increased level of activation that takes place in medial prefrontal cortex during improvisation may contribute to a sense of expressing who you truly are. Again, the self is typically experienced as a combination of goals, behaviors, and constraints. An increased level of activation in medial prefrontal cortex where goals are maintained independently of behavior might give the musician a sense that their self is being expressed in a way that is more real or more true than the way it is normally expressed when intentions and aspirations are more closely associated with behavior. This sense of self as experienced during improvisation might be described as playing what you are (Louis Armstrong), the truth of what you are (Charles Mingus), or the spiritual essence of what you are (John Coltrane).


Miles Davis

When jazz musicians and other creative artists talk about creativity they may say things that seem to be contradictory about how creativity relates to the self. However, the pattern of increased activation in medial prefrontal cortex combined with decreased activation in lateral prefrontal cortex that is observed when musicians are improvising indicates that the contradiction may be an illusion.  Rather than being in conflict, characterizations of improvisation as either expressing the true self or going beyond the self may be reflecting different aspects of what’s going on in the brain during creative musical improvisation.


About Kevin Murnane

I am a cognitive scientist, a freelance writer and author (Nutrition for Cyclists: Eating and Drinking Before, During and After the Ride), a musician (Parametric Monkey - stream on Spotify, Soundcloud and YouTube), a bookstore owner (Monkey Books - first edition mystery, science fiction, fantasy and more, listed on ABE books, Amazon and Biblio), and a retired house painter, children's theater actor & owner, and university professor. I'm also a regular contributor to the technology section at Forbes and I write a cycling blog called Tuned In To Cycling. You can follow me on twitter @TheInfoMonkey and contact me at murnane.kevin@gmail.com.
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5 Responses to What Goes on in Your Head During Creative Musical Improvisation? Part 2

  1. Pingback: What Goes on in Your Head During Creative Musical Improvisation? Part 1 | THE INFO MONKEY

  2. Eric Velhagen says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I finally had a chance to sit and read “What goes on in your head during creative musical improvisation part 2”. Very interesting and I liked it. I admit it took me several times to read it to get some grasp of it. You asked me how I thought it might compare to a painter/artist…I fell that there is a similarity. There are times when I’m painting that it just flows, there are no problems, and it is a joy when that happens. I’ve heard it called getting into “the zone”, where hours feel like minutes. But when leaving “the zone”, I’m exhausted. Many times when I’m painting that there is a “dialogue” (for lack of a better description) that happens between me and the painting…I “listen” to what the painting is telling me what it needs (like color, value, edge, etc.). I would be curious if this happens with musicians. Where the music, as it is being played, tells the musician what musical notes the songs needs and the musician complies. Perhaps where you describe: ‘This sense of self as experienced during improvisation might be described as going beyond yourself (Dave Brubeck), playing above yourself (Miles Davis), or rising to a new level of consciousness (Charlie Hayden).’ might mean that this dialogue does happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric, thanks for your thoughtful comment. The experience you’ve described with a dialogue metaphor sounds very much like the experience another graphic artist, Kristen Kest, and I have been emailing about using different metaphors. Kristen referred to Jan Mukarovsky’s ideas about the intentional and the unintentional in art to capture this idea about being in the zone where the art seems to flow without directed and carefully controlled intention on the part of the artist. I was talking about the experience of being in the zone as an athlete, musician, writer, and sometimes even as a math modeler where you feel like you are operating outside of normal constraints and you are “ahead” (in some sense) of the activity you’re doing so that it seems like the game, or the art, or the music is coming to you rather than your being in a place where you are striving to get to it. All of this sounds to me like it has a lot in common with the dialogue between the painting and the painter that you described. As you pointed out it also sounds like it may well be what Brubeck, Davis and Hayden were talking about. Does it sound like we’re all talking about more-or-less the same thing to you?

      Too bad we can’t get the fMRI data to see if visual artists, musicians, writers and athletes are all experiencing the pattern of activation in prefrontal cortex that is described in the first article when they are experiencing the creative state of mind you, Kristen and I are talking about using these different metaphors.


  3. Eric Velhagen says:

    Hi Kevin,

    It does sound like we are more-or-less talking about the same thing…a big relief for me.

    Some more thoughts…

    Comparatively, of the different activities between the athlete, musician, writer, and artist that are able to get into the “zone”, the painter/artist would take the longest to get to that state (at least for me). What I mean by that is the painter needs to paint in areas (or sections) of the canvas and then get it all to work together…an analogy being like using a camera that starts out of focus and then is slowly turned towards a focused image. So for me, as all the different colors, values, brush strokes, different thickness and consistencies of paint start to reveal the image, I am then past the hard part and can play and get into the “zone”. I can go back and forth with the paint by blending, removing, adding, softening/hardening edges and bring the image to its final state. However, with that said, I’m always wanting to get to the “zone” immediately. Occasionally, it has happened in the beginning stages of a painting (the block-in). And there are days where the “zone” can fluctuate like an ocean tide, in an out…very frustrating when this happens. It seems like each painting session is different…dammit…because I love the full day “zone” days!

    I remember watching a documentary on Miles Davis (after his passing). Herbie Hancock was talking about a session where he suddenly played a wrong note. He was shocked when it happened, but even more shocked when Miles Davis almost immediately incorporated that note within the rest of the song. Herbie loved Miles adaptability and how the song came out. Those “Happy Accidents”…I love them.

    Back to the painting perspective…After I’ve laid in the groundwork and I’m in the zone, when I’m relaxed and freer, I’m ALWAYS on the look-out for those “Happy Accidents”. That “dialogue” and that relaxed state, being in the “zone” is where awesome things happen. I don’t recall any awesome thing happening when I not in the “zone”.

    I would be curious if the athlete, musician and writer has the same day-to-day inconsistencies of getting into the “zone” as I do.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I can only give anecdotal evidence based on my own experience here. For me, being in the zone occurs least frequently during athletics and most frequently when writing with music falling somewhere in between. Thinking about this based on how you described your experience, Eric, I wonder if at least two things are involved.

    One is the time course of the event. Athletic competition and playing music live go on whether or not you are in the zone. You have to keep up. If you’re in the zone, great; if you’re not, too bad, you have to go on anyway. Painting and writing can be a stop and start process in which you can stop and reboot if whatever you’re doing isn’t taking you into the creative place you want to be. The option to reboot may make it easier to find a way into the zone.

    The other factor is practice. I think it’s likely that the more you practice getting into the creative zone the more frequently it’s likely to happen. With enough practice I expect you can get to a place where you can enter the zone more easily. Not completely at will because if we could we’d spend almost all of our time there, but with more regularity. It sounds like you are at this stage with painting. Jazz musicians who consistently play improvisational music can improvise creatively on demand. For example, the jazz pianists in Limb and Braun’s fMRI study were able to improvise while they were in the bore of the MRI machine! Classical musicians who are every bit as technically advanced as world-class jazz musicians often do not improvise very well. The music they play does not demand it so they don’t practice it nearly as much.

    I spent many years lecturing at the college level and I treated both lecturing and writing as two sides of the same coin – telling a story. Also, I never lectured from detailed notes. Every lecture was improvised on the spot and the way I would prepare for a lecture (as well as the way I prepare to write) was to mentally riff on the story I wanted to tell. I’ve had years of practice doing this with the result that I can enter a creative zone relatively easily with writing. I don’t always get there when I want to, and sometimes I don’t get there at all, but it happens more frequently with writing than with either music or athletics where I haven’t had the same amount of practice.


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