Scientists inspired by the legendary improv of Miles Davis and John Coltrane are peering inside the brains of today’s jazz musicians to learn where creativity comes from. Think dreaming.


This isn’t just a curiosity for jazz fans but a bold experiment in the neuroscience of music, a field that’s booming as researchers realize music illuminates how the brain works. How we play and hear music provides a window into most everyday cognitive functions that in turn may help find treatments for brain disorders.


Creativity, though, has long been deemed too elusive to measure. Saxophonist-turned-hearing specialist Dr. Charles Limb thought jazz improvisation provided a perfect tool to do so — by comparing what happens in trained musicians’ brains when they play by memory and when they riff.


“It’s one thing to come up with a ditty. It’s another thing entirely to come up with a masterpiece, an hour-long idea after idea,” explains Limb, a Johns Hopkins University otolaryngologist.


How do you watch a brain on jazz? Inside an MRI scanner that measures changes in oxygen use by different brain regions as they perform different tasks. You can’t play trumpet or sax inside the giant magnet that is an MRI machine. So Limb and Dr. Allen Braun at the National Institutes of Health hired a company to make a special plastic keyboard that would fit inside the cramped MRI.

Then they put six professional jazz pianists inside to measure brain activity while they played straight and when they improvised.

Getting creative uses the same brain circuitry that Braun has measured during dreaming: First, inhibition switched off. The scientists watched a brain region responsible for that self-monitoring, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, shut down.

Then self-expression switched on. A smaller area called the medial prefrontal cortex fired up, a key finding as Braun’s research on how language forms linked that region to autobiographical storytelling. Jazz improvisation produces such individual styles it’s often described as telling your musical story.

The musicians also showed heightened sensory awareness. Regions involved with touch, hearing and sight revved up during improv even though no one touched or saw anything different, and the only new sounds were the ones they created.