Oh, the directions we could take this article! Written music is a language. Phrase structure…how a piece of music unfolds section by section can be considered a language. And like any language, the more you experience these aspects of music, the easier they are to understand. When you get used to Bach’s compositional language, you are more likely to spot a piece by Bach you don’t know. The same can be said for Miles Davis’s playing or James Taylor’s style. If you’ve experienced a lot of those artists’ output, you know their “language” when you hear it.
But that’s not what we are talking about today. Our brains actually process music much like our brains process language. Let’s science!!! (Yes…I used science as a verb. It’s okay. Roll with it.)
Jazz Improv and Dr. Charles Limb: Otolaryngological Surgeon and Musician
What is improv in jazz? Well, first, it’s music made up on the spot, following agreed-upon rules, like tonal center, meter, and duration. It’s almost like a good debate. One person expresses their views and then another person counters. This happens often in jazz, this dialogue. Dr. Limb decided he wanted to learn more. He wanted to see what was going on in the brain of a performing musician. From The Atlantic:
He and a team of researchers conducted a study that involved putting a musician in a functional MRI machine with a keyboard, and having him play a memorized piece of music and then a made-up piece of music as part of an improvisation with another musician in a control room.
What did Dr. Limb discover? While taking part in these jazz dialogues, while musicians improvise with other musicians, the parts of the brain that process language light up on the MRI. What’s more important, the area of the brain specifically linked to syntax, the arrangement of words to construct well-formed sentences in a language, also lit up.
Jazz Dialogue is Language – with an Interesting Difference
While the brain’s language areas light up while conversing in jazz, there is a substantial difference that actually makes sense. Syntax areas respond – but semantic areas do not. What does this mean? Semantics has to do with meaning. When speaking or listening to a sentence, the brain will work out structure (syntax) and meaning (semantics). When dealing with improvised jazz, the parts of the brain responsible for meaning are dormant.
Ok. What does that mean? Dr. Lamb explains:
Music communication, we know it means something to the listener, but that meaning can’t really be described,” Limb said. “It doesn’t have propositional elements or specificity of meaning in the same way a word does. So a famous bit of music—Beethoven’s dun dun dun duuuun—we might hear that and think it means something but nobody could agree what it means.
– Dr. Lamb/The Atlantic
Dr. Lamb’s TedTalk is pretty interesting. Take a look and see what you think.