Take Away Show #41 — THE ARCADE FIRE

Members of Arcade Fire at the 2011 Grammy Awards.

The creation of Take Away Shows is linked to Arcade Fire. Before the cancellation of their European Tour, Arcade Fire played two amazing video sessions in Paris: one in a lift, and, after, into the crowd.

From Vincent Moon / Petites Planètes
Paris, L’Olympia, March 2007

Take Away Show #41 _ THE ARCADE FIRE

Text by Chryde
Images & edit by vincent moon
Sounds by adrien cordier & chryde
Mix by francois clos
Produced by chryde for la blogotheque


Win Butler had to slouch a little to fit into the freight elevator. He went directly to the back, leaned against the iron door, turned around, looked at the cramped space, and asked us, “Think we can all go back now?” Then he smiled a smile that a kid would give, pure and honest, like he had just found his hiding place. Win Butler smiled, and five weeks of work seemed to crumble before us.

During those weeks, I had been in continual contact with Vincent Morisset, who runs the Neon Bible site. Win and Régine had been responsible for coordinating our Take Away Show. We had discussed dates and places, imagining the Madeleine at night, the knoll at the Île de la Cité, an old café, a roundabout behind the Olympia…We checked the weather every day and despaired about the cold front that was passing through Paris. We had surveyed the entire inhumane neighborhood from top to bottom, trying to anticipate the crowd, the willpower of the group, the cold, and the fatigue. Then, suddenly, we had a plan. Win asked if there was a freight elevator. We found it, Win smiled, and the Take Away Show was no longer in our hands.

We knew that the Take Away Show with Arcade Fire wouldn’t be like the others. The project was made for them because they’re of a different kind, a different essence. We had spent the afternoon with them when suddenly we realized, in a flash: “yes, this group is different.”

We had been playing the role of “outsider” the entire day, like a foreign body that latches onto the daily grind of these magnificent musicians. We had to adapt, through astonishment and wonder, as the band took up their instruments and started to play. But Arcade Fire didn’t take us as outsiders. It all seemed to unfold naturally: we entered into their logic as they awaited us and eventually swallowed us up. It was now Win Butler’s Take Away Show, and we followed.

It was too cold to play outside after the show, so we initially thought about playing in the entrance hall during Electrelane’s performance, but the Olympia didn’t allow it. All we had left was the freight elevator, and we had to do a little convincing to make it happen. On the other side of the elevator, there was a door that would lead us into the concert hall. They could go back to the pit in the Olympia by exiting through there, and then re-exit through the door near the stage. Win wasn’t so hot on the plan…the venue was a little too big and the whole thing sounded complicated. It took us about 20 minutes to convince him, not knowing at all what was waiting for us at the other end of this crazy idea. Win went back to tell Richard and Will to follow him to the elevator, with everyone asking when to play, or whether this was going to happen before or after the show. It was going to be before. Régine was the only one who thought differently, and there were a few seconds of furious looks, which immediately mellowed and eased into resolution. The big guy won, and everyone went back to reconfigure the set-list.

Arcade Fire is a unique group. Everyone’s split up during the day, managing and wandering through his/her own affairs in the dressing rooms and corridors. No one seems to move about as much as Win, who manages everything, knows everything, watches everything, and hears everything. Afterwards, as show time approaches, everyone slowly comes together again, each still folded into him/herself. A couple of notes sound from a bugle, Régina taps on a box, Jérémy amuses himself with a drum, and Tim does a little Monty Python dance. A mobile cacophony, a music that takes form, several people coming together, and some random and various snippets of songs to come. Everyone is concentrating alone, but at the same time following a trace towards the group’s uncanny unity. As the orchestra tuned and grew powerfully aligned, we started towards the elevator.

The rest waits on film. We all bunched into the elevator, and I took my position at Richard’s feet. They started off with an enchanting version of “Neon Bible” and the door opened, allowing us to approach and penetrate the massive torrent of fans. I didn’t think about anything more. I was taken by the fervor, watching Vincent Moon with his camera, screaming in silence, and thinking over and over again: “We did it. Shit, we really did it!”

Art and Neuroscience: a State of the Union – The Creativity Post

By Noah Hutton
Noah is a film director based in New York City. His first feature film, Crude Independence, was an official selection of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival and won Best Documentary Feature at the 2009 Oxford Film Festival. In 2010, he began filming a 10-year documentary about The Blue Brain Project, and in 2011 he directed a series of 30 short films for Scientific American, and served as a judge for the 2011 and 2012 Brain Art Competitions. His 2012 concert film King for Two Days, which premiered at the 2012 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, is a portrait of jazz drummer Dave King (The Bad Plus). Noah graduated from Wesleyan University, where he studied art history and neuroscience.

Neuroscience is providing a new language for questions of art and mind.

Chances are you’ve come across a neuro-something, sometime recently. Indeed, there’s neuroscience, the study of the brain using the tools of modern science, but then there’s an ever-growing constellation of its young, interdisciplinary offspring: neuroeconomics, neurogastrology, neurotheology, and even the pseudoscience-meets-beverage Neuro™, among others. The relative merit of each is up for debate (see a recent column by Steven Poole in The Guardian for a particularly critical stance towards these neuro-constructs, and another take-down by Alva Noë in The New York Times).

What I’m concerned with here, and will be in future posts on this site, is one of the more prominent members of this interdisciplinary offspring: neuroaesthetics, the conversation between brain science and the arts. The field is undoubtedly young and still finding its legs, leaving it vulnerable to criticism from the Steven Pooles and Alva Noës of the world, who see wishy-washy, romanticized bridge-building in such a pursuit. I disagree. I believe one should not confuse infancy with naïveté– that neuroscience is indeed giving us a new language through which we can ask new questions about art, its effects on the observer, its genesis in the creative mind, and its possible explanatory power in dealing with murky subjects like consciousness, subjective experience, and memory.

To begin, I will try try to identify a few lines of inquiry into the current dialogue between art and neuroscience, and to describe the angle of each line’s approach to that relationship. It’s most likely an incomplete outline, so please chime in with any additions you can think of in the comments section. This outline was the basis of my talking points at “This is Your Brain on Art,” a panel I sat on recently at 3rd Ward in Brooklyn, NY (here’s a video of the event), and originally appeared in text form, before the event, over at my website The Beautiful Brain.

Here are three approaches:

1. Art —-> Brain. The perception of art by the brain.

This is the approach that studies what happens to art when it enters the brain. How do our brains reconstruct, assess, and fasten judgement to works of art? This includes not only bottom-up flows (sensory input moving higher and higher, up into the cortex), but also top-down flows (expectations influencing the viewing or listening process; jogged memories coloring our incoming perceptions).

These flows of external aesthetic features translated into internal neural activity are what the vast majority of current neuroaesthetics research is concerned with, and indeed what most books concerning art and the brain investigate. Here we’re interested in perception and analysis of these basic features of an artwork: how we see color, detect motion, hear sound, recognize faces, feel rhythm, and what the peculiarities of each perceptual system tell us about the way the brain stitches these properties together.

Then, at the next level, we can begin to untangle emotional and executive areas of the brain and their involvement in making and viewing art. Art’s effects can be correlated with the production of fear via heightened activity in the amygdala, pleasure in the nucleus accumbens, mystery/problem solving in the prefrontal cortex, disgust in the insula– all operating purely as correlations of subjective experience to distinct brain-states. Also surely involved at these higher levels is our empathetic connection to the work, be it a character in a film, or a melody in a song, and the top-down control that empathy has over the ongoing perception of the work at hand.

This approach can focus on any artform as it enters the brain, such as:

Visual art. How the brain sees paintings and sculptures, from color and luminance to faces and perspective. There is a boatload of work going on here, with big names like Livingstone, Zeki, and Ramachandran. Here is a review of some visual neuroaesthetics work by those heavyweight researchers, and a podcast with Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist and painter who is interested in the relationship between science and art.

Music. This line of study moves from perception of sound by mechanical sensors in our cochlea to its processing in the auditory cortex, and the rich tapestry of emotion that music can provoke within us. This is Your Brain on Music is a popular book in this field by neuroscientist and musician Dan Levitin. Examples of this kind of work abound; elsewhere, I’ve posted about Charles Limb, who studies the brains of improvising jazz musicians, yielding some interesting initial results.

Literature. Though there’s some interesting work being done here, it’s perhaps the haziest of the artistic disciplines to approach with the tools of present- day neuroscience. Most real science being done that involves the literary arts concerns very elemental stages of reading– one word, one sentence– and their neural correlates, as seen through a fMRI scanner. Here’s a NY Times article about some of this recent fMRI work on the neuroscience of the written word. Another strain of this inquiry involves literature in the context of Darwinian evolution– here’s an overview from Beautiful Brain contributor Ben Ehrlich about the “Literary Darwinists.”

Dance. This line of inquiry concerns the perception of movement, and perhaps most importantly for the neuroscientific angle, the alleged mirror neuron system. The Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series featured choreographer Mark Morris and neuroscientist Bevil Conway in discussion about the relationship between dance and the brain. Cognitive neuroscientist Mark Changizi has a theory about the relationship between dance, music, and the brain, that’s worth looking into: Changizi believes music has been culturally selected over time to sound like human movement.

Theater & Film. Theater and film have a special relationship with the brain (see next section for some thoughts on this). Both must necessarily be studied in the broadest of terms– for unlike visual art or music, both are truly multisensory experiences and thus harder to study at the level of isolated perceptual systems. There have been some inroads made, especially along the “neurocinematics” avenue (there’s a good review of the field by the Neurocritic).

2. Art Brain. The parallels between art and the brain.

This is the approach that lines up art and the brain next to one another and examines the similarities between the processes of our mind and the artwork that those minds create. It’s here where I think the conversation around cinema and theater really takes off. In particular, film, in its aesthetic and sensory richness (and optimal viewing space, in my opinion: a darkened theater) gets the closest, as an artform, to the sensory and emotional unity of human consciousness, and maybe more specifically, human dreaming, as housed in the activity of the brain.

Some further thoughts on these parallels, specific to film.

A film is a constructed subjective experience, very much like one’s own consciousness. The filmmaker goes out, collects footage, and edits it together, constructing a unique consciousness that can be presented in a two-hour window. The construction of a film includes editing (mirroring our own selective and sometimes modified memories), framing (where we look, how we hear, what came before), rhythm (day and night, patterns of movement, a beating heart).

A film has a scope, be it of a historical event, a range of emotion in a specific moment, a day in a person’s life, and so on, that is achieved both by what is seen and heard in the film, and also by what is not seen and heard. The power of suggestion, of the unsaid, can bear tremendous weight in a film. This mirrors the tip-of-the-iceberg consciousness we all experience, with the vast scope of our unconscious experience resting just beneath that surface. In this way, film not only parallels our conscious, edited experience, but also the non-conscious, suggested experience, which can color much of the way we see the world.

3. Art <—- Brain. The brain, as seen through the lens of art.

This is an approach that feels less common, but one that I think has potential on the level of pure theory. This is the approach that believes art to be a valuable lens through which to observe and understand subjective, first-person consciousness in the brain. In other words, it's interesting to study the brain during an artistic experience, but once we've lined up all subjective experience to constellations of firing neurons and distinct chemical washes, and we understand the general architecture of the brain, maybe we actually need to look at the art itself as an unparalleled mirror of the internal neural architecture that forms subjective experience. For if we've understood the architecture in purely neuroscientific terms, maybe in order to break new ground on understanding what goes on inside those rooms, how first-person consciousness takes flight from the connections and flows of activity among neurons in the brain, we'll need to look more closely at how different modes and styles of art are true reflections of the neural landscapes they emerged from. John Onian's concept of "Neuroarthistory” is the closest current approach to this line of thinking that I’m aware of (here’s an interview I taped with Mr. Onians).

This third approach is related to #2 above, but here you’re really stitching together everything from #1 and #2 to make strides in understanding the highest functions of the mind through the art it makes and sees. You’re not treating the art as a passive artifact that only comes to life once it’s ingested by the nervous system, which you then set about studying. In this third approach, you’re treating the art as a sort of living record with a unique perspective on the nervous system from which it emerged. For one such attempt at this type of approach, here’s an essay I wrote over at The Beautiful Brain about abstract art and its roots in hierarchical neural architectures.

If you’re still skeptical about this whole dialogue between the arts and brain sciences, maybe you will agree with the aforementioned critique of neuroaesthetics by Alva Noë. Here is my response to Noë’s essay, in defense of neuroscience and neuroaesthetics. Please chime in with your views in the comments section below.

Tags: art, arts, brain, neuroscience, philosophy, science

Musical Creativity and the Brain – The Creativity Post

By Monica Lopez-Gonzalez
Mónica López-González, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Otolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Mónica received her doctoral degree in Cognitive Science from the Johns Hopkins University. Her current research focuses on the neural correlates of artistic creativity, with an emphasis on musical production.


Brain imaging studies reveal the neural underpinnings of spontaneous musical creativity. Improvisation activates brain areas associated with language and sensorimotor skills and deactivates areas at rest during dreaming and meditation.

Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored with Charles J. Limb M.D. You can learn more about Dr. Limb here.

While working with young jazz soloists, Miles Davis once said, “Play what you hear, not what you know.” Practice, experience, and sheer talent taught Davis that a personally and socially satisfying gig occurs when the ideas entering the musician’s imagination are developed through solo improvisations instead of ignored in favor of practiced patterns. [1] Simply put, no one wants to pay for and hear a contrived performance. Both the fascination we have with the art of in-the-moment creation and the value we place on it continue to flourish. Contemporary artists as varied as pianist Keith Jarrett, vocalist Bobby McFerrin, and rapper Eminem make their living off of improvising and regularly pack concert venues.

Which brings us to the main questions underlying both theoretical and empirical work on creativity: What is it, and how do we accomplish it? The literature on creativity and its related topics—intuition, expert knowledge, problem-solving, achievement, and case studies of exceptional accomplishments—is vast, with perspectives coming from fields as diverse as philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, musicology, and art history. [2-15] But research on creativity, particularly from the psychological perspective, can be considered a young science, having progressed only after prominent American psychologist J.P. Guilford made a plea for its empirical study during his 1950 presidential address to the American Psychological Association. [3] Despite the later advent of brain-imaging techniques in the 1990s, the neuroscience of creativity began to harbor interest and to pick up pace only very recently.

Any empirical work on the topic, however, requires a clear operational definition. The general consensus is that as a prominent characteristic of human intelligence, creativity is a fundamental activity of human information processing. [12] A primary difference between our brains and those of other animals is our capacity to engage in cognitive abilities such as reasoning, representation, association, working memory, and self-reflection. During any creative act, from language production to marketing techniques selling the latest iPhone, ideas or past experiences are combined in novel and significant ways via the interaction of such cognitive capacities. The creative cognition approach is the current model dominating the neuroscientific study of creative thinking. According to this approach, creativity is far from a magical event of unexpected random inspiration. Instead, it is a mental occurrence that results from the application of ordinary cognitive processes. [16]

Humans appear to have a propensity for making complex new things that are not explicitly necessary for biological survival or reproduction. In comparison to other arts, such as design, photography, and sculpture, however, the universal abilities of musical creation and processing are generally accepted as some of the oldest and most fundamental of human socio-cognitive development. In fact, researchers have argued for music’s role in evolutionary biology. [17-19] Scholar Ellen Dissanayake has further claimed from an ethnological stance that the creation and appreciation of art more generally are advanced adaptive behaviors that are key to social survival. [20-22]

Creativity and Prefrontal Cortex Function

A summary of brain structure and function reveals the importance of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to creative thinking. The brain is functionally divided into the frontal lobe and three posterior cortices known as the occipital, the parietal, and the temporal (OPT). Neurons in the OPT cortices are devoted to perception and long-term memory. Primary sensory cortices of all sense modalities, such as visual, motor, somatosensory, and auditory, are located in the OPT cortices, respectively. Each sensory cortex has an association cortex that further gathers and incorporates sensory information from its respective primary cortex.

Courtesy of Mónica López-González and Charles J. Limb

Unlike the other cortices, the frontal lobe neither receives direct sensory input nor stores long-term memory. The frontal lobe is the seat of executive function and is essential to our ability to plan, to make decisions, to form judgments, to assess risk, and to formulate insight. The PFC, which occupies half the frontal lobe, integrates already highly processed information to enable even higher cognitive functions such as self-construct, [23] complex social function, [24] planning, [25] and intentional action, [26] among others. Research has further shown that working memory, [27] temporal integration, [28] and sustained and directed attention [29] are key cognitive functions that provide the underlying framework to compute even higher cognitive functions because they act as buffers, simultaneously maintaining in-the-moment information in consciousness and ordering it in space-time as associations proceed.[30]

As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio suggests, a working memory buffer is critical for creative thinking because it allows for the retention of relevant knowledge while problem-solving; [31] without it, the back-and-forth reworking of associations and consequent novel solution identification would be impossible feats, as is the case in monkeys and humans with PFC lesions. [32] The PFC is further divisible into two functionally distinct parts: the ventromedial (VMPFC), which is connected to the amygdala and the cingulate cortex in the limbic system and is implicated in emotional evaluation, [24] and the dorsolateral (DLPFC), which receives input from the occipital, parietal, and temporal regions and sends direct output to the motor cortices. Here too, Damasio notes the importance of these functional distinctions and suggests that the PFC’s ability to evaluate appropriateness is critical to the problem-solver as she determines how creative her solution really is. [31]

Types of Creative Processes and Their Underlying Brain Mechanisms

If we are to understand the underlying mechanisms of creative production, what is important is not so much the context for which the result was produced, but rather the hypothesis that creative thinking can lead to different types of inventions and disparate processes. In line with psychologist Ronald Finke’s findings that mental images can be generated intentionally or spontaneously during the problem-solving process, [11] one of the more interesting proposals circulating is neurocognitive scientist Arne Dietrich’s claim that either of these problem-solving modes can occur within an emotional or cognitive context. Moreover, creative behavior is ultimately the result of a combination of the four psychological processes described below. [14]

Deliberate cognitive: This process involves inventiveness that comes from sustained work in a discipline. Take, for example, Eadweard Muybridge, the British photographer who experimented for years with multiple cameras and precision timing. Eventually, he created a string of negatives proving that all of a horse’s hooves are indeed airborne at a certain point during a trot. The PFC induces this type of creativity by allowing for focused attention and connections to information stored and perceived in other parts of the brain. Muybridge revolutionized the field of animal locomotion by systematically using his knowledge of camera mechanics in novel ways and serendipitously uncovering the physics behind motion pictures.

Deliberate emotional: Remember when you were given a Where’s Waldo? book and told to look for the guy with glasses, a red-and-white-striped shirt, and a matching hat? After a seemingly endless search, “Aha!”—you found him and smiled with satisfaction. Deliberate emotional creativity refers to the experience of such an “aha” moment, typically associated with a positive emotion. As with deliberate cognitive creativity, the VMPFC’s attentional network is involved. However, instead of connecting directly to perceptual and long-term memory areas, attentional resources are directed to emotional structures in the limbic system. Studies have recently shown that the “aha” moment is precisely correlated with significant activity in the amygdala,[33] a structure known for its role in emotional learning. [34] So next time you look for Waldo, you’ll remember how pleasant it felt to find him in the past, and that will keep you motivated to continue searching.

Spontaneous cognitive: Otherwise known as the “eureka” moment, this type of creativity typically occurs suddenly when one has left the problem-solving context and directed attention to a completely different task. Here, the dopamine-rich basal ganglia of the brain, involved in the execution of automatic behaviors, [35] operate outside conscious awareness. Searching in vain for novel solutions forces you into a mental gridlock. Until the problem is temporarily removed from conscious awareness, new perspectives cannot be gained. [11] As you perform an unrelated activity, the PFC connects information in novel ways via unconscious mental processing.

Spontaneous emotional: Usually referred to as an epiphany, this type of creativity occurs when neural activity in the amygdala is spontaneously represented in working memory. Given the biological significance of emotional events, these types of moments tend to be intense. While no apparent knowledge is necessary, specific skills may be required for these insights to come to fruition.

What Do We Know About Spontaneous Musical Creativity in the Mind/Brain?

Brain-imaging studies in music cognition have focused primarily on the neurobiology of music processing and the perception of emotion. [36] Until recently, researchers neglected the psychological and neuroscientific study of the process of musical composition in both longitudinal case studies of musical scoring and studies of instantaneous, real-time creation. In 2007, researchers began to explore spontaneous improvised musical material as it is generated, perceived, and communicated among musicians.

From the jazz artist’s perspective, improvisation refers to the dynamic moment at which the artist employs immediate decision-making as new ideas are conceived of and then integrated into the ever-evolving musical output. [1] In regards to cognitive processes, improvisation can thus be defined as the spontaneous generation, selection, and execution of novel auditory-motor sequences. Since musicians must generate a potentially infinite number of contextually meaningful musical phrases by combining a finite set of notes and rhythms, researchers consider musical improvisation an optimal way to study the neural underpinnings of spontaneous creative artistic invention. While the study of real-time musical improvisation has been made easier with the use of custom-built, nonferromagnetic piano keyboards, noise-canceling microphones, electrostatic headphones, and contemporary functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques, experimenting with such a hallmark of artistic creation is no easy task. The conductors of music experiments must find just the right balance of experimental control and ecological validity.

So far, researchers at three laboratories have specifically examined highly constrained simple melodic improvisations by classically trained pianists. [37-39] Their investigations have found that the generation of musical structures implicates the sensorimotor and classic perisylvian language cortices (Wernicke’s and Broca’s semantic and syntactic processing areas), and the PFC, in particular the DLPFC.

Asking the same neurocognitive question of what distinguishes improvisatory from memorized behavior, researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braun explored improvisation with professional jazz pianists. [40] Instead of improvising over predetermined melodies with a fixed number of notes, participants either freely improvised to the auditory accompaniment of a prerecorded jazz quartet or reproduced memorized jazz sequences. Improvisation, in comparison to the production of overlearned material, was characterized by widespread activation in sensorimotor and language areas. Furthermore, activity observed in the PFC included both deactivation of the DLPFC and lateral orbital (LOFC) regions and focal activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). In comparison to the more musically constrained generation studies, this study reveals a state of free-flowing complex musical ideas that may result from the combination of internally generated self-expression (via the MPFC) and attenuation of activity in the DLPFC. This observation is additionally intriguing given that altered states of mind such as dreaming, meditation, and hypnosis have produced such “turning-off” of executive functioning. [41]

We have all most likely experienced moments of intense focused concentration at a task followed by a pleasurable aftereffect. Psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmiháyli and colleagues proposed and developed the theoretical construct of a flow state, commonly referred to as being in the zone, to describe precisely that optimal experience that occurs during a highly motivated creative (but not necessarily artistic) act. [7, 42] Researchers have made applications and correlations not only to music performance, [43] but also to athletic competition. [44] Research investigating possible links between musical creativity and Csíkszentmiháyli’s concept of flow, however, are sparse in regards to behavioral data, except for a study on long-term group composition, [45] and lacking in neuroimaging data, with the exception of Limb and Braun’s study. [40]

If one characteristic of a generative creative and artistic act is a state of flow, then musical genres other than jazz ought not only to be associated with generalized heightened activity in all sensory modalities, but also to exhibit an equivalent mental state. As with the Limb and Braun study, [40] Mónica López-González and colleagues sought to identify the neural substrates underlying the spontaneous generation of rhyming sequences in hip-hop performance. [46] Freestyle rapping, like jazz, involves the rapid, real-time generation of lyrics to the accompaniment of a rhythmic beat. During López-González’s study, using a similar methodology to that of Limb and Braun, professional freestyle rappers performed to rhythmic accompaniment as they either spontaneously improvised lyrics or recited a pre-memorized novel rap. In line with the other generation studies, improvisation, compared to nongenerative recitation, revealed heightened activity in the superior MPFC, classical language areas, sensorimotor cortices, and the cerebellum. Deactivation was observed in LOFC regions. In sum, the DLPFC and multiple sensory and language areas appear to be associated with the encoding and consequent implementation of novel auditory-motor sequences germane to the act of spontaneous musical improvisation.

Perception of Improvised Material

An alternative to investigating what occurs in the brain during real-time generation of novel material is researching its perception. Are listeners of jazz improvisation capable of evaluating offhand such spontaneously improvised material? Evaluation of improvised material can be important for aesthetics, enjoyment, and economic purposes; entire jazz competitions and festivals depend on this capacity of experienced judges and inexperienced, eager listeners.

The single study that has been done to date made three observations after testing musically trained listeners attempting to differentiate between improvised and rehearsed jazz piano solos. [47] First, judgment ratings revealed that experienced jazz musicians are relatively accurate at classifying performances as improvisations instead of rehearsed imitations. Second, fMRI data revealed correlations between listening to improvisations and increased activity in the amygdala, a structure in the limbic system also implicated in the processing of behavioral uncertainty. [48] Third, fMRI data also revealed that activity in the pre-SMA, superior frontal gyrus, rostral cingulate cortex zone, Broca’s area, and motor-related areas (e.g., the cerebellum, primary motor area, and precentral gyrus) was stronger when people listened to melodies judged as improvised than when they listened to those judged as imitated. These data reveal an apparent cortical overlap between trained musicians listening to novel improvisatory material and those creating it. [37-40, 46]

These observations provide strong evidence that musicians are far from passive listeners. Given personal experience with the art form in question, they engage in action simulation. The extent to which these findings are generalizable to nonmusicians remains to be determined. However, given the amygdala’s sensitivity to cues in musical uncertainty in the performers’ behavior, researchers can hypothesize that even nonmusicians appreciate performance fluctuations such as the timing between keystrokes and the force applied to each keystroke, both prominent auditory features for identifying musical spontaneity. [49] Perhaps witnessing firsthand those unfolding moments of creation makes going to a live jazz performance or searching for that one classical LP recording so rewarding.

Communication of Improvised Material

Jazz performance is not typically a solo venture. Provided that it is an interactive live musical discourse among multiple performers, two intriguing questions arise. First, is this musical conversation manifested neurologically, given shared cognitive networks between music and language processing? [50, 51] Second, given the interactive nature of the task, is a state such as Csíkszentmiháyli’s flow possible?

In an fMRI study at Johns Hopkins, Gabriel Donnay and colleagues explored a typical jazz improvisation convention known as trading fours, whereby two or more musicians alternate solos of four-measure phrases for arbitrary lengths of time. [52] Results revealed that improvisation during the trading fours task was associated with activation in Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, sensorimotor areas, and the lateral PFC and deactivation in the medial frontal PFC. With only a single existing fMRI study exploring the perception of interlocutors during natural language discourse, [53] this study adds to the nascent research hypothesizing that conversation, linguistic or musical, involves a complex network of brain regions that includes the PFC, perisylvian language cortices, and sensorimotor areas. Additionally, given the memory demands for the expected melodic and rhythmic consistency within a trading fours improvisatory task, complete entering into “the zone” may not be an applicable option in such a context. These hypotheses, of course, are but the beginning steps along this line of inquiry.

The Future of the Neuroscience of Artistic Creativity

The empirical study of artistic creativity paves the way for both a better and a more appreciative understanding of the psychological and neural processes underlying a fundamental aspect of human cognition. Although recent scientific work has not yet taken full advantage of its interdisciplinary potential, researchers have implemented a conceptual framework, and cognitive neuropsychologists are slowly beginning to break this optimal human experience into its constituent parts. It is clear even from the minimal studies available within musical creativity that creativity can neither be localized to a single area in the brain nor boxed into a single process phenomenon.

Although researchers are only beginning to uncover the neural substrates of spontaneous invention, no mention has been made about how creative behavior interacts with aesthetic judgment or emotion. Given humans’ constant evaluations of the results of creative thinking and the effects it has on our consequent behaviors, it is reasonable to assume that studying the effects of emotion during creation may be another piece to the puzzle of what, how, and why we create. After all, a general social assumption is that emotion guides much of artistic creation. This is yet another empirical question.

Finally, even within the few active years of research on creativity there has been an obvious bias toward studying musical creativity. But music is not the only art form that engages creative thinking and states of flow, provokes emotional responses, has aesthetic value and sociocultural significance, and is widely produced. The most immediate challenge for the field is to bridge into visual and other performing arts in order to formulate a more generalizable theory on artistic creativity.

This article originally appeared in Cerebrum.

Featured image: Nick White/Taxi/Getty Images



1. Berliner, P. F. (1994). Thinking in jazz: The infinite art of improvisation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

2. Bergson, H. L. (1911). Matter and memory (N. M. Paul & W. S. Palmer, Trans.). London: George Allen and Unwin.

3. Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association, Pennsylvania State College.

4. Guilford, J. P. (1956). The structure of intellect. Psychological Bulletin, 53(4), 267-293.

5. Guilford, J. P. (1957). Creative abilities in the arts. Psychological Review, 64(2), 110-118.

6. Bunge, M. (1962). Intuition and science. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

7. Csíkszentmiháyli, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety: Experiencing flow and in work and play. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

8. Bastick, T. (1982). Intuition: How we think and act. Chichester, England: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

9. Richardson, C. P. (1983). Creativity research in music education: A review. Council for Research in Music Education, 74(83), 1-21.

10. Gardner, H. (1993). Creating minds: An anatomy of creativity seen though the lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. New York: Basic Books.

11. Finke, R. A. (1996). Imagery, creativity, and emergent structure. Consciousness and Cognition, 5, 381-393.

12. Boden, M. A. (1998). Creativity and artificial intelligence. Artificial Intelligence, 103, 347-356.

13. Simonton, D. K. (2000). Cognitive, personal, developmental, and social aspects. American Psychologist, 55(1), 151-158.

14. Dietrich, A. (2004). The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 11(6), 1011-1026.

15. Pressing, J. (1988). Improvisation: Methods and models. In J. Sloboda (Ed.), Generative processes in music: The psychology of performance, improvisation, and composition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

16. Smith, S. M., Ward, T. B., & Finke, R. A. (Eds.). (1995). The creative cognition approach. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

17. Peretz, I. (2001). The biological foundations of music. In E. Dupoux (Ed.), Language, brain, and cognitive development: Essays in honor of Jacques Mehler. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

18. Koelsch, S., & Siebel, W. A. (2005). Toward a neural basis of music perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(12), 578-584.

19. Thaut, M. H. (2009). The musical brain: An artful biological necessity. Karger Gazette: Music and Medicine, 70, 2-4.

20. Dissanayake, E. (1974). A hypothesis of the evolution of art from play. Leonardo, 7, 211-217.

21. Dissanayake, E. (2009). The artification hypothesis and its relevance to cognitive science, evolutionary aesthetics, and neuroaesthetics. Cognitive Semiotics, 5, 148-173.

22. Dissanayake, E. (2011). In the beginning, evolution created religion and the arts. The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, Culture, 2, 64-81.

23. Vogeley, K., Kurthen, M., Falkai, P., & Maier, W. (1999). Essential functions of the human self model are implemented in the prefrontal cortex. Consciousness & Cognition, 8, 343-363.

24. Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Putnam.

25. Shallice, T., & Burgess, W. (1991). Deficits in strategy application following frontal lobe damage in man. Brain, 114, 727-741.

26. Frith, C. D., & Dolan, R. (1996). The role of the prefrontal cortex in higher cognitive functions. Cognitive Brain Research, 5, 175-181.

27. Baddeley, A. (1996). Exploring the central executive. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 49(A), 5-28.

28. Fuster, J. M. (1995). Temporal processing: Structure and function of the human prefrontal cortex. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 769, 173-181.

29. Posner, M. (1994). Attention: The mechanism of consciousness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 91, 7398-7403.

30. Dehaene, S., & Naccache, L. (2001). Toward a cognitive science of consciousness: Basic evidence and a workspace framework. Cognition, 79, 1-37.

31. Damasio, A. R. (2001). Some notes on brain, imagination and creativity. In K. H. Pfenninger & V. R. Shubik (Eds.), The Origins of Creativity Oxford: Oxford University Press.

32. Lhermitte, F. (1983). “Utilization behaviour” and its relation to lesions of the frontal lobes. Brain, 106, 237-255.

33. Ludmer, R., Dudai, Y., & Rubin, N. (2011). Uncovering camouflage: Amygdala activation predicts long-term memory of induced perceptual insight. Neuron, 69, 1002-1014.

34. Hamann, S. B., Ely, T. D., Grafton, S. T., & Kilts, C. D. (1999). Amygdala activity related to enhanced memory for pleasant and aversive stimuli. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 289–293.

35. Ashby, G. F., Isen, A. M., & Turken, A. U. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106, 529-550.

36. Peretz, I., & Zatorre, R. J. (2005). Brain organization for music processing. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 89-114.

37. Bengtsson, S. L., Csíkszentmiháyli, M., & Ullén, F. (2007). Cortical regions involved in the generation of musical structures during improvisation in pianists. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(5), 830-842.

38. Berkowitz, A. L., & Ansari, D. (2008). Generation of novel motor sequences: The neural correlates of musical improvisation. NeuroImage, 41, 535-543.

39. de Manzano, Ö., & Ullén, F. (2011). Goal-independent mechanisms for free response generation: Creative and pseudo-random share neural substrates. NeuroImage, 59, 772-780.

40. Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous music performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS ONE, 3(2), 2-9.

41. Dietrich, A. (2002). Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The transient hypofrontality hypothesis. Consciousness and Cognition, 12, 231-256.

42. Csíkszentmiháyli, M., & Csíkszentmiháyli, I. S. (Eds.). (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

43. de Manzano, Ö., Theorell, T., Harmat, L., & Ullén, F. (2010). The psychophysiology of flow during piano playing. Emotion, 10(3), 301-311.

44. Young, J. A., & Pain, M. D. (1999). The zone: Evidence of a universal phenomenon for athletes across sports. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, 1(3), 21-30.

45. MacDonald, R., Byrne, C., & Carlton, L. (2006). Creativity and flow in musical composition: An empirical investigation. Psychology of Music, 34(3), 292-306.

46. López-González, M., Sachs, M., Jiradevjong, P., & Limb, C. J. (in prep). Neural correlates of improvisation in freestyle rapping.

47. Engel, A., & Keller, P. E. (2011). The perception of musical spontaneity in improvised and imitated jazz performances. Frontiers in Psychology, 2(83), 1-13.

48. Singer, T., Critchley, H. D., & Preuschoff, K. (2009). A common role of insula in feelings, empathy and uncertainty. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13, 334–340.

49. Keller, P. E., Weber, A., & Engel, A. (2011). Practice makes too perfect: Fluctuations in loudness indicate spontaneity in musical improvisation. Music Perception, 29(1), 109-114.

50. Koelsch, S., Gunter, T. C., von Cramon, D. Y., Zysset, S., Lohmann, G., & Friederici, A. D. (2002). Bach speaks: A cortical ‘language-network’ serves the processing of music. NeuroImage, 17, 956-966.

51. Brown, S., Martinez, M. J., & Parsons, L. M. (2006). Music and language side by side in the brain: A PET study of the generation of melodies and sentences. European Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 2791-2803.

52. Donnay, G., Jiradevjong, P., & Limb, C. J. (in prep).

53. Caplan, R., & Dapretto, M. (2001). Making sense during conversation: An fMRI study. Neuroreport, 12(16), 3625-3632.