Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig have found that different processes occur in the brains of classical and jazz musicians, even when playing the same piece of music. The findings, published in an article titled Musical genre-dependent behavioural and EEG signatures of action planning. A comparison between classical and jazz pianists in the academic journal NeuroImage, found differences in the brain activity of jazz and classical pianists, particularly in the way they planned movements.

Brains, Classical, JazzJames Morrison performing at the 2017 Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

According to the researchers, this could help explain why musicians tend to excel in one or other style, while performers who have mastered both are rarer.

“The reason could be due to the different demands these two styles pose on the musicians – be it to skilfully interpret a classical piece or to creatively improvise in jazz,” said Daniela Sammler, a neuroscientist and leader of the current study. “Thereby, different procedures may have established in their brains while playing the piano which makes switching between the styles more difficult.”

The study involved 30 professional pianists, half of whom specialised in jazz and the other half in classical music. The pianists were asked to imitate a hand playing on a screen, playing a sequence of chords scattered with mistakes in harmonies and fingering while their brain signals were measured by EEG.

brain, jazz, classicalImage © Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

It was in the planning of finger movements that the pianists’ neurological procedures were most different, with the classical pianists placing greater cognitive emphasis on how – and with what fingers – notes were to be played while the jazz pianists focussed more on what notes were to be played. According to the researchers, the jazz pianists were always prepared to adapt their playing to produce unexpected harmonies.

“Indeed, in the jazz pianists we found neural evidence for this flexibility in planning harmonies when playing the piano,” said Roberta Bianco, the first author of the study. “When we asked them to play a harmonically unexpected chord within a standard chord progression, their brains started to replan the actions faster than classical pianists. Accordingly, they were better able to react and continue their performance.”

brain, classical, jazzImage © Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

The brains of the classical pianists, however, showed stronger awareness of fingering, with those musicians performing better when it came to following unusual fingerings and making fewer errors when imitating chord sequences.

“Remarkably, long-term adaptive plasticity in the action control hierarchy was behaviourally reflected in structure flexibility in jazz pianists and fine movement accuracy in classical pianists during the execution of the same task,” the study concluded. “Hence, the specific demands and focus of previous experience may result in dramatic and enduring changes in performers’ motor control system, providing neurobiological accounts for the great divide between musicians of the ‘swing’ and the ‘legit’ style.”

“Through this study, we unravelled how precisely the brain adapts to the demands of our surrounding environment,” said Sammler.

The study also reinforces that meaningful research into the way the human brain responds to music should not be limited to a single style. “To obtain a bigger picture, we have to search for the smallest common denominator of several genres,” Sammler said. “Similar to research in language: To recognise the universal mechanisms of processing language we also cannot limit our research to German.”