Charles Limb on Neuroscience of Jazz

August 12, 2011

Charles Limb is a surgeon and musician who researches the way creativity works in the brain.  He puts jazz musicians inside an fMRI to find out what the brain does during musical improvisation.  Bass player Mike Pope is one of his subjects.  Anne Strainchamps talks with them about the music and the science.


Watch Charles Limb's TED Talk:



I really appreciated hearing a scientific approach to creativity in The Creative Mind on July 1, 2012!!! I am classically trained pianist who has trouble improvising. Here's my theory after teaching piano for decades. Numerous students over decades have usually presented as a strong "eye" person (sightreads easily) or a strong "ear" person (improvises easily). And eye people resist doing ear exercises, and vice versa. I only met one person who was strong in both! But eye can develop ear & ear can develop eye but it takes a new frame of mind which is not natural to the person. I seem to be a classic eye person but when I was a teen, I found great delight in taking off on a piece I was learning. At 14, I got self-conscious & told myself, if I don't sound like Beethoven, give it up now. So I mainly developed my reading/performing (at Peabody & Oberlin).

I asked a good improviser, an ear person who had a B.M in piano, what was going throuhg his mind when improvising. He found it hard to explain but gave me an analogy of a fork and knife beside each other - he didn't explain it. I assume the shorter fork is his mind (oh, that's a G7, that's a D major scale) and the more influential force is the knife, his ear. I think he as trying to tell me that his mind informs his improvisation but takes a backseat.

My critical mind and my music theory mind have always been my downfall in improvising.
So it was great to hear in tonight's show who the "censor" mind is shut down. But isn't the informing mind (music theory or 12-bar blues chord progression) necessary during improvisation? I get overly focused on structure and my natural improvising part of me rarely sees the light of day.