Musicians have different brains

The style of music makes the difference The brains of jazz and classical pianists tick differently

Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett already knew it: When asked in an interview with a music magazine whether he could imagine playing both jazz and classical in a concert, he replied: "No, I think that would be madness [. ..], practically not feasible. [...] Your system is based on different circuits for both directions. "

And that actually seems to be true: the brains of jazz and classical pianists tick differently. Scientists working with neuropsychologist Daniela Collector from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences in Leipzig have observed that jazz and classical pianists have different brain processes while they play the piano. And that's the case even when they're playing the same piece of music.

The reason for this lies in the different planning of movements when playing the piano, explains Collector. Of course, regardless of style, pianists must first know what they are playing - i.e. which keys to press. Then there is the question of how you play a piece - i.e. with which fingers you operate these keys. The weighting of "what" and "how" now varies depending on the music genre, explains neuropsychologist Collector.

The classical pianists focus very much on how they make the piece expressive. It's a lot about how the piece is played. Our data showed that the classical pianists had reproduced the fingerings that we were supposed to play much more correctly.

Dr. Daniela Collector, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

The jazz pianists, on the other hand, were very flexible in processing surprising changes because they are very well aware of what kind of harmonies they are playing and which are possible following a chord that they have just played.

Study on 30 professional pianists

For their study, the scientists examined 30 professional pianists. Half of them have specialized in jazz for at least two years, the other half in classical music. Many of the test subjects are students of the Leipzig University of Music and Theater "Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy".

The test subjects saw a hand on a screen playing a sequence of chords on a piano - peppered with stumbling blocks in the harmonies and fingerings. The pianists were supposed to replay exactly what they saw on the screen, including any mistakes. Meanwhile, their brain waves were measured. The goal: to find out how the pianists plan their playing.

"In fact, we were able to see the flexibility that jazz pianists trained in planning harmonies while playing the piano in the brain," explains Roberta Bianco, first author of the study. "When we suddenly let them play a harmoniously unexpected chord during a logical sequence of chords, their brains began to reschedule the plot much earlier than that of classical pianists. They were able to react correspondingly faster to the unexpected situation and continue their play." The classical pianists, on the other hand, found it much easier to adjust to unusual fingerings. Because because their brains pay more attention to fingering, they made fewer mistakes in mimicking it.

And now it was the case that the pianists who had a classical education had no problems with the fingering errors and our jazz pianists had no problems with the harmony errors.

Dr. Daniela Collector, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

The researchers had hoped to discover such a difference, says Daniela Collector. "We are dealing with highly trained people here. Both groups are wonderful pianists, but their brains have adapted very, very precisely to different requirements."

You can compare it to cycling, the Tour de France: there you have the sprinters and the climbers. So these are cyclists who are more trained for mountain or flatter stages and what one can do, the other cannot. So a sprinter is rarely good at mountain climbing and vice versa, simply because different muscle groups are being trained.

Dr. Daniela Collector, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

Applications for learning hoped for

The tests with the pianists have shown how finely tuned our brain reacts to the demands of its environment, explains neuropsychologist Daniela Collector. Therefore, if you want to understand what happens universally in the brain when we make music, you have to focus on more than just one style of music. So far, however, this has mainly been done using Western, classical music. The investigations of the Max Planck Institute are basic research. They serve the general understanding of the processes in our brain.

For us pianists are a wonderful model of how the brain adapts to its environment. It has been known - for years - that the brains of musicians tick differently than the brains of non-musicians. The constant training over many years since early childhood leads to very specific changes in the brain. What was important to us now is to show that at a very, very high training level, despite - or perhaps because of this - differences still exist between the brains.

Dr. Daniela Collector, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

"For the overall picture, we have to look for the lowest common denominator of all styles of music," adds the neuroscientist. It is similar to language research. In order to recognize which mechanisms apply universally to process language, one cannot limit oneself to German either. And the research results could find practical application in languages ​​of all places: if you know how to train a brain and different training methods create different connections in the brain, you could apply this knowledge to language learning, for example.