a musician playing keyboardIn some ways, music really is like another language. Research from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine analyzed the brain activity of jazz musicians. The musicians jammed together, creating music as they played without using any pre-composed tunes. The researchers found that as the musicians played, brain areas associated with syntax—the rules and sentence-level structure of a language—were active. The research suggests that, for the brain, music and language may not be so different.

The researchers observed the brain activity of 11 men, aged 25 to 56, who were highly skilled in jazz piano performance. Specifically, they used an fMRI to measure brain function while the musicians participated in an improvisational activity called “trading fours.” When trading fours, musicians alternate players, each spontaneously building on the last four bars of music played by the other. The musicians were situated in fMRI tubes with keyboards in their laps. Mirrors were arranged so the musicians could see their playing hands without moving their heads.

The improvisational jam session activated some parts of the brain, while dampening activity in others. The inferior frontal gyrus and posterior superior temporal gyrus, both associated with processing a language’s syntax, lit up as the players traded fours. At the same time, the angular gyrus and the supramarginal gyrus, which are related to processing language’s semantics, powered down.

“When two jazz musicians seem lost in thought while trading fours, they aren’t simply waiting for their turn to play. Instead, they are using the syntactic areas of their brain to process what they are hearing so they can respond by playing a new series of notes that hasn’t previously been composed or practiced,” said Limb, associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngoloy-Head and Neck Surgery.

The study raises interesting ideas about how the brain manages auditory communication. The results highlight the complex relationship between spoken language and music, since the brain regions in processing syntax are not limited to just spoken language, but appear to play a role in all auditory communication.

This research is published in the journal PLOS One.

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