Neuroscience and Pedagogy of Improvisation

“Forget All That and Just Play”: The Neuroscience of Improvisation and its Implications for Jazz Pedagogy


This paper explores research into the neuroscience of jazz improvisation and its implications for how improvisation is taught.   Initial studies in the neuroscience of improvisation seem to have produced contrasting results.  In fMRI studies, Limb and Braun (2008) observed deactivation in the region of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex during improvisation, while Bengtsson, Csikszentmihalyi, & Ullen (2007) observed activation of the pre-frontal cortex during improvisation.  Recent research by Helmer, Bianchi, and Falco (2017) suggests a brain in-flux between attention (activated pre-frontal cortex) and mind wandering (deactivated pre-frontal cortex) that characterizes improvisation.  After examining classic texts on the pedagogy of jazz improvisation by Coker and Baker, as well as research into the connection between jazz improvisation and language areas of the brain, this paper suggests adding focus on communication/collaboration between musicians and mindfulness training to a jazz improvisation curriculum that traditionally emphasizes the encoding of musical patterns into long-term memory over other approaches.


When asked what advice he would give an aspiring jazz musician, the great saxophonist and musical innovator Charlie Parker instructed that one should “master your instrument, master the music and then forget all that and just play” (Pugatch, 2006). Musical improvisation, or the creative activity of immediate musical composition, is one of the most demanding tasks a musician can undertake, requiring the real-time generation and production of novel melodic and rhythmic sequences in line with an ongoing musical idea or context (Williamson, 2015).  “Improvising musicians are”, as surgeon, neuroscientist, and musician Charles J. Limb, M.D., states, “in a remarkable frame of mind, during which, all of a sudden, the musician is generating music that has never been heard, thought, practiced or played before. What comes out is completely spontaneous” (“This is Your Brain on Jazz”, 2008, para. 5).  Limb and others have sought to define what exactly is going on in the brain when a musician is improvising; as we will soon see, Charlie Parker’s instruction to “forget all that and just play” seems to anticipate current research into the neurology and psychology of musical improvisation.

In this paper, we will examine the current state of academic understanding of what is occurring within the brain during spontaneous musical creation, as well as related insights into the psychology of creativity.  We will then briefly define the techniques of traditional instruction of jazz improvisation, before considering whether these practices align with what brain research is telling us.  Finally, we will explore the neurological connection between language and musical spontaneity, and its implications for the teaching of jazz improvisation to developing musicians.

The Neurology of Improvisation

An examination into the research of the neurology of jazz improvisation begins with the work of Charles Limb, M.D.  As a jazz enthusiast and musician in his own right, Dr. Charles Limb has always been fascinated by the ability of master musicians to spontaneously create music on a consistently high level (Zagorski, 2008).  “How do the legends, musicians like John Coltrane, get up on stage and improvise music for an hour or sometimes more?” asks Limb. “How do they produce masterpiece after masterpiece without any preparation?” (Zagorski, 2008, para. 3).  Teaming up with Allen R. Braun at the National Institutes of Health, Limb endeavored to analyze brain activity that occurs while a person is in the act of improvising jazz.  Their study resulted in the publication of the paper Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation (Limb & Braun, 2008).

In the paper, Limb and Braun outline and discuss their investigation, including methodology and results.  They set out to investigate the neural substrates, or functional units of the central nervous/brain system, that underlie musical improvisation (Limb & Braun, 2008).   To conduct their investigation, Limb and Braun recruited six trained jazz pianists, and placed them in a functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) machine (“This is Your Brain on Jazz”, 2008).  An fMRI is a brain-scanner that, through the use of powerful magnets, illuminates areas of the brain responding to various stimuli; it identifies blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity (“This is Your Brain on Jazz”, 2008).  In collaboration with a California-based engineer, Limb and Braun devised and produced a miniature, non-magnetic keyboard and a system of mirrors so the players could see the modified keyboard resting on their knees while they were in the machine (Zagorski, 2008).  Once in the fMRI, the musicians completed four different musical tasks designed to differentiate the brain activity involved in playing simpler musical ideas (scales, elementary pieces) from the more complex act of spontaneous musical creation.

Limb and Braun found that “improvisation (compared to production of over-learned musical sequences) was consistently characterized by a dissociated pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex: extensive deactivation of dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions with focal activation of the medial prefrontal (frontal polar) cortex” (2008, p. 1).  In other words, when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off regions in the frontal lobe linked to self-censoring and inhibitions, i.e. conscious monitoring, and turn on regions that “let self-expression flow” (“This is Your Brain on Jazz”, 2008, para. 1).  Additionally, brain regions involving the senses were also activated during improvisation, indicating a heightened state of awareness (Zagorski, 2008).  This seems to align well with jazz great Charlie Parker’s instructions to “forget all that and just play” while improvising; Parker seems to be suggesting a unique state of mind where the improviser is in a “zone” where musical ideas can flow, free of effort, criticism, or analysis.

In contrast, the work of Sara L Bengtsson and coworkers (2007) found that the front conscious monitoring areas of the brain were not all shut off during improvisation (as cited in Williamson, 2015).  Their study, Cortical regions involved in the generation of musical structures during improvisation in pianists, reported improvisation-related activity in several prefrontal regions of the brain, including the DLPFC, right pre-SMA, and bilateral dorsal premotor cortex (PMD) (Beaty, 2015).  Bengtsson’s argument is that continued activation in frontal areas of the brain makes sense, that these regions are part of a network involved in musical creation (Bengtsson, Csikszentmihalyi, & Ullen, 2007).  Essentially, Bengtsson and coworkers propose, improvisation places greater demands on cognitive and motor control systems as the process requires executive brain function to select responses from among a set of competing alternatives (Beaty, 2015).  As music psychologist Dr. Victoria Williamson (2015) states:

This continued activation in frontal areas of the brain makes sense as not everything that might emerge spontaneously in the brain is worth consideration – ideas and thoughts must be monitored, evaluated and selected for action. This executive decision process requires our precious frontal lobes (especially pre-frontal lobes, where motor actions are also driven) to be working, not all switched off (Is the frontal brain just switched off section, para. 1).

What accounts for this discrepancy in findings?  As Beaty reports, Limb and Braun (2008) completed their study with a sample composed of professional jazz musicians, while Bengtsson and coworkers (2007) used professional classically-trained pianists (2015).  He continues:

Studies with classically-trained musicians that report increased activity within executive control regions could simply be a function of increased task demands, since these musicians are presumably less familiar with improvisation. The results of Pinho et al. (2014, as cited in Beaty, 2015) suggest that expert improvisers indeed show less activation of lateral prefrontal cortex while improvising compared to novices. However, experts also showed increased functional connectivity between premotor and executive control regions, which suggests that although experts show less activation within lateral prefrontal cortex, they also show greater connectivity between such regions during improvisation. Pinho and colleagues posit that this pattern may reflect a greater automaticity of cognitive processes in experts (Beaty, 2015).

The idea that developing expertise is a means towards automation of low-level cognitive processes, i.e. the ability to “let go” of normal cognitive control, was first proposed by psychologist Jeff Pressing (1998).  Pressing’s theory, following in the literature on expert performance by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer (1993) and others in psychology, is that an expert jazz improviser has undergone a substantial amount of deliberate practice and training and that this process has automated many of the cognitive and behavioral actions that are demanded in musical performance (as cited in Williamson, 2015).  Jazz musicians must perform under extraordinary temporal constraints; spare cognitive capacity generated from automation can be used for the generation and on-line evaluation of musical ideas (Williamson, 2015).  Following Baddeley’s working memory model and Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory, Pressing conceptualizes improvisation as the interaction between higher-order referent processes- ongoing perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processes-  and long-term memory (Beaty 2015).

Essentially, the improvising musician, having spent many hours engaged in intentional practice, has coded various rhythmic and melodic patterns into his long-term motor memory.    When improvising, the musician draws upon these pre-coded patterns in real time in response to external and internally perceived stimuli.  This phenomenon has been shown in no-less a master improviser than Charlie Parker himself; a statistical analysis of a large body of improvised solos by Parker found that nearly all the studied solos, recorded over an 8-year period (1946-1954), are comprised of variations of measurable musical patterns (Norgaard, 2014). Indeed, Parker tells us as much in his quote that began this paper, when he instructs the aspiring musician to “master your instrument, master the music and then forget all that and just play”; by mastering the saxophone and encoding specific musical patterns into his long-term memory, Parker recalls and inverts these pre-coded patterns at speed in response to what he perceives, thinks, and feels.

From a cognitive perspective, then, it appears that improvisation is an activity that requires both goal-oriented executive brain function as well as the ability to “turn off” conscious monitoring so that the improvising musician can be fully present in the moment to interact with and react to stimuli and be in an unfettered zone of self-expression.  The characterization of improvisation as a flow between states of attention, or activation of the pre-frontal cortex demonstrated by Bengtsson (2007), and mind wandering, or deactivation of the pre-frontal cortex demonstrated by Limb (2008), is demonstrated in unpublished research out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Researchers there have observed pre-frontal cortex (DLPC) deactivation during improvisation alternating with shorter periods of activation (“The Brain on Jazz”, 2017).  WPI Director of jazz studies Rich Falco confirms the conclusions he and fellow researchers Frederick Bianchi (director of computer music research at WPI) and Karl Helmer (assistant professor in radiology at Harvard Medical school) reached as a result of their study:

In practice, a jazz musician needs to be able to move between brain states.  At times, the executive functions need to turn off to permit unbridled creativity.  But the musician must also be able to pop back into focused awareness to monitor where the improvisation is going and how he is responding to and building on the playing of other musicians in the ensemble (“The Brain on Jazz”, 2017).

For the aspiring expert in jazz improvisation, his teacher, and instructional designers in the field, the question at this point becomes what, if anything, does research into the neuroscience of improvisation tells us about how we might teach it to developing musicians?  Is it simply about encoding musical patterns into long-term memory?  To answer this question, we will first explore traditional literature in the pedagogy of jazz improvisation by summarizing related content of two classic texts: The Teaching of Jazz, by Jerry Coker, and Jazz Pedagogy, by David Baker.

Traditional Pedagogy of Improvisation

Jerry Coker’s The Teaching of Jazz is billed as a “definitive book” for those involved in the study of jazz; to this day, it remains the sole required textbook for the graduate-level Pedagogy of Jazz course in the world-renowned jazz studies program at the University of North Texas (Murphy, u.d). Published in 1989, this text summarizes and codifies Coker’s experience creating a jazz degree program at the University of Miami in Florida.  In the section of the book entitled “Teaching the Courses in the Jazz Curriculum”, Coker provides syllabi and teaching suggestions for several jazz-based courses.  For our purposes, we will be examining his proposals for the teacher of Jazz Improvisation.

Coker conceptualizes the course as focused on solo improvisation, as opposed to an emphasis on group/collective improvisation (1989, p. 73).  Play-a-longs, or pre-recorded musical tracks of bass, drums, piano, and sometimes guitar, serve to provide a rhythmic and harmonic foundation for an improvising musician, and are preferred (Coker, 1989, p. 73). As expected, emphasis is placed on patterns of notes and scales (Coker, 1989, p.69).  There is also a related section of “Essential Patterns and Licks”, which outlines 12 musical patterns or phrases that approximate what an expert musician might play in a given harmonic situation (Coker, 1989, pp. 78-81).  Coker makes a point here to discuss the importance of incorporating familiar jazz phrases and language into an improvised solo, lest the player sound “simplistic, academic, sometimes aimless, with a noticeable absence of those patterns and licks which are continually shared by virtually all the great improvisers” (1989, p. 78).   He also emphasizes the quick correction by the instructor of any inaccuracies, particularly in the first few weeks of the course, so that “each student quickly comes to know that wrong notes are audible, that you hear them (precisely), and that they are ultimately responsible” (Coker, 1989, p. 74).

Like Coker, jazz educator David Baker emphasizes the learning of scales and musical patterns in his classic and widely-cited book Jazz Pedagogy: A Comprehensive Method of Jazz Education for Teacher and Student.  In the section of the text entitled “Some Thoughts on Teaching Improvisation”, Baker outlines an approach where students learn a complex “bebop” song by rote (transmitted aurally, without written sheet music), then analyze the harmonic progression to identify patterns (Baker, 1979).  Following the analysis, students are taught 1-2 musical patterns or “licks”; they are instructed to learn the pattern in all 12 keys/tonal centers, in addition to its suggested harmonic application in the song being studied (Baker, 1979, p. 168).  Baker also discusses the preparation and playing of transcribed improvised solos, whereby the aspiring musician listens to a “master” improviser and copies what he or she plays, writing down and/or memorizing the solo being studied (1979, p. 169).  Finally, Baker, too, recommends the use of play-a-long pre-recorded tracks as a tool for teaching improvisation (1979, p. 168).

The Language of Improvisation and Implications for Pedagogy

Both the Coker (1989) and the Baker (1979) texts approach the learning of jazz improvisation through the memorization of digital patterns and “licks” commonly found in the spontaneous creations of master or artist-level musicians.  On the surface, this seems to be a logical response to the analysis of Charlie Parker’s solos as a sequence of variations on pre-encoded patterns.   Indeed, based in this understanding of a shared musical vocabulary, an intentional parallel is drawn between learning to improvise and learning a language.  In research into the acquisition of human language, Saffran (2003, as cited in Noorgaard, 2016) found that very young learners use statistical properties of linguistic input to discover structure, including sound patterns, words, and the beginning of words, similar to the learning of musical patterns advocated by Coker and Baker.  In fact, research into the neuroscience of jazz improvisation does support the basis of this conclusion.  Donnay, Rankin, Lopez-Gonzales, Jiradejvong, and Limb (2014) studied the phenomenon of “trading fours”, a common practice in jazz performance where two or more musicians will take turns alternating/exchanging improvised four measure phrases, usually within a pre-established rhythmic and harmonic framework of a song or composition.  They found that when musicians were engaged in an improvised musical “conversation”, areas of the brain associated with language are activated.

In their study, the results of which are published in the paper Neural Substrates of Interactive Musical Improvisation: an fMRI Study of ‘Trading Fours’ in Jazz (2014), Donnay et al. looked at the brain activity of musicians who were highly proficient in jazz piano performance.  Following the approach of Limb and Braun (2008), musicians were placed inside the fMRI machine with the previously described non-magnetic keyboard and system of mirrors, and engaged in a 10-minute session of trading fours (Griffiths, 2014).   While engaged in the act of trading fours, Donnay et. al observed intense activation in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, two regions of the brain which together center on language (2014).  As Donnay et. al state, “neural regions for syntactic processing are not domain-specific for language but instead may be domain-general for communication” (2014, p. 1). However, they also observed strong bilateral deactivation of the angular gyrus and supramarginal gyrus, brain structures involved in semantic processing, or how meaning is placed in context within the mind for deeper processing (Donnay et. al., 2014).  This suggests a critical distinction, where there is not a set or definable meaning for music as there is for words.

This research supports the idea that collaborative musical improvisation is, from a neurological standpoint, much like spoken conversation. What distinguishes the findings of Donnay et al. from traditional practices in the pedagogy of musical improvisation, however, is their emphasis on collaboration.  If jazz improvisation is to be taught as a language, then it must be learned through collaboration with other musicians, just as a child learns to speak by listening and interacting with his/her parents, caregivers, and peers.  Numerous anecdotal sources identify performance or group “shedding”, i.e. group practice sessions, as the place where master musicians learn the language of jazz.  Indeed, jazz pianist and educator Hal Galper puts it in the simplest terms, stating “school is on the bandstand” (Barron, 2007). Returning to Charlie Parker, it is important to note that, while his improvisations consisted of playing variations of musical patterns encoded in long-term motor memory, they did not occur in a bubble.  Rather, Parker’s improvised solos were created in real-time in response to perceived stimuli, including the playing of other musicians in the band.  The “what” (what specific pitches to play) of jazz improvisation may consist of variations on encoded patterns, but the “where” (where to place the chosen pitches within the framework of the performance), the “how” (how to create variety using expressive elements and melodic and rhythmic variation), and the “why” (why are you playing what you are playing at this moment in this manner) are formed entirely through collaboration.

A Revised Pedagogical Approach to Jazz Improvisation

Therefore, research into the neurology and psychology of improvisation supports traditional pedagogy while calling for critical additions.  Practice encoding musical patterns and “licks”, as emphasized in traditional instruction of jazz improvisation, aligns with Pressing’s theory of improvisation (1998) as the automation of cognitive and behavioral actions developed through deliberate practice.  This practice has been and should remain a part of process of learning to improvise.  However, the research of Donnay et al. (2014), along with anecdotal evidence from musicians themselves, tells us that collaboration and communication between musicians, which is de-emphasized in the literature, is perhaps an even more important component of jazz improvisation, and must be included in its pedagogy.  Furthermore, the recent findings of Falco, Bianchi, and Helmer suggest that the teaching of jazz improvisation should also include mindfulness training, including yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises, to teach students to “get in the zone” and achieve a balance between self-awareness (pre-frontal cortex on) and creative mind-wandering (pre-frontal-cortex off) (“The Brain on Jazz”, 2017).


Research into cognition and musical improvisation can and should influence how improvisation is taught.  Often, it can confirm and/or inform traditional philosophies and approaches. The pedagogy of jazz improvisation, informed by brain science, should include, as Charlie Parker outlined over 60 years ago: (1) “mastery of your instrument” through deliberate practice of musical patterns; (2) “mastery of the music” through experience in musical communication and collaboration with other musicians on the bandstand; and finally, (3) the ability to “forget all that and just play”, or the ability to achieve the unique state of mind balancing focused attention and unbridled creativity.


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