VIDEO: Inside the Musician Brain During Improv

What happens when Ben Folds composes a piece live with the National Symphony Orchestra?

“The beauty of improvisation is it’s a container where it is safe to be as human as you possibly can.” — Esperanza Spalding

Any fan of Ben Folds who has seen him in concert over the years knows to expect something unexpected. Be it in a rock club or a classical concert hall, Folds regularly challenges himself to write and perform a new song on the fly using lyrics or ideas yelled to him from the audience. It’s not only a demonstration of the piano rocker’s quick musicianship but a shared moment of co-creation between him, the musicians on-stage and the audience that that offers a rare view into an artist’s mind.

On June 2 as a part of Sound Health in Concert: Music and the Mind, Folds (who was recently appointed Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra) joined the NSO on stage and turned audience suggestions and a Kennedy Center informational pamphlet into music in 10 minutes. Watch that process below.

What happens when an artist creates or when a musician improvises is a question that can be answered any number of ways ranging from the spiritual to the philosophical. Dr. Charles Limb has devoted much of his research to understanding that question through a scientific lens. Limb, who introduced Folds on stage on the June 2 show, brought together an expert panel on June 3 titled “Jazz, Creativity, and the Brain,” which included jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding and jazz pianist and neuroscience P.hD Vijay Iyer. What followed was a far-reaching conversation about the new science and artist perspective on the act of improvising and collaboratively making music.

“The beauty of improvisation is it’s a container where it is safe to be as human as you possibly can,” said Esperanza Spalding.

For Spalding and Iyer, improvisation is about going to an honest artistic place where they can freely express themselves and collaborate with fellow musicians. Getting to that place requires extensive practice to trust the technical skills involved in performing but also to trust that mistakes are okay and the musical space is receptive to what you have to say.

“It’s not about newness. It’s not about creating something that’s new. It’s about creating something that’s true,” Iyer explained. “That doesn’t make it easy, but it’s simple. It’s partly about accepting what happens. It’s also about listening.

“[People talk about] improvising as this rarified thing. The fact is we are all improvising all the time. You’ve been doing it since you were in utero. We are doing it on this stage.”

Both jazz musicians describe practice as a way to prepare yourself to get out of your own way, trust the work you put in and then express something personal.

“Once you hit go in the improv department, you are challenged to undo all of your processing faculty,” said Spalding. “You are trusting something else, which is the place from which you create, and it’s your humanity. … I think the practice of improve is a practice of trusting that it’s ok, that it’s safe to do that. That you’re in safe company that encourages truth, exposition, self-exploration and communication in a way where it will be received and given back to you and put into a larger context.”

“It’s not about newness. It’s not about creating something that’s new. It’s about creating something that’s true.” — Vijay Iyer

In 2008, Charles Limb conducted an experiment that measured brain activity of jazz musicians through fMRI while they improvised. Limb said this experiment is one of the first of its kind, but the results of that experiment support in neuroscience terms the artistic and aesthetic process that Iyer and Spalding describe.

“When we are improvising, at least in a solo context, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is shutting itself off in large part,” Limb said. “This is the part of the brain that is involved in conscious self-monitoring. It’s the part of the brain that censors you when you’re about to make an error.

“What does this suggest? … It suggests exactly what you two are talking about, that you are trying to clear the space away and get out of your own way so you can create.”

Limb said that they also saw medial pre-frontal activation in the brains of the musicians they scanned. That section is the autobiographical part of the brain.

“If you tell a story about yourself, this part of the brain is active. If you hear a song that reminds you of summer in sixth grade, this part of the brain is active,” Limb said. “So in a solo improvisation context, [this] self-monitoring area is shutting itself off, and this auto-biographical area is turning itself on. When we think about improvisation as sort of telling your musical story, it might start to make some sense biologically.”

Limb cautions that this research is far from creating a definitive model about what happens in the brain during improvisation, and that this is a first step that could be entirely wrong or possess a kernel of truth in that model. He describes trying to understand the brain as looking at a large house and wondering about the lives of the people who live there. The fMRI technology that enabled his study, he said, is like a one-inch window into the basement and trying to catch snippets of what’s happening inside.

“You’re trying to say a lot from very little, but it’s also better than not having that window at all,” Limb said.

Watch the full session from “Sound Health: Jazz, Creativity, and the Mind” below to see the full conversation on improv, music as a language and some incredible performances by Vijay Iyer and Esperanza Spalding.