This Is Your Brain on Jazz

A new study shows that piano players who specialize in classical music have a different brain structure than those who generally play jazz. Mclein/Shutterstock

Musical talent: You either have it or you don’t. Studies have shown that musical talent isn’t just about having an ear for music, it’s also about having the brain for it — meaning the brains of musicians are built differently than non-musicians. As it turns out, the relationship between brain structure and musical talent goes even further than just general musical ability.

A recent study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig has shown a difference in the brain structures of musicians who specialize in different genres of music. The researchers found that the brain activity of classical pianists differs from jazz pianists, even if they’re playing the same piece of music.

A difference in approach

What the researchers were essentially looking for was if different approaches to playing specific styles of music (in this case, jazz versus classical) translate to differences in brain activity.

In terms of approach, classical musicians put a stronger emphasis on precision, technique and fingering, while jazz musicians have a stronger focus on improvisation and the ability to react and adapt quickly to sudden changes that may occur in a piece of music. The researchers concluded that the difference between the types of training and approach that are required to play different styles of music correlates to a difference in the brain structure of different kinds of musicians.

The researchers kept two things in mind when conducting the study: When playing a piece of music, musicians have to think about both what they’re going to play (specific notes) and how they’re going to play it (the fingering). During the study, the researchers found that the jazz pianists were focused more on what they were playing, while the classical pianists devoted more of their attention to how they were playing.

Reaction versus precision

Thirty pianists participated in the study: half jazz pianists, half classical. The pianists all viewed images on a screen of a hand playing a specific chord sequence on a piano, and the sequence featured a variety of mistakes in both the harmonies and fingering. While watching the images on the screen, the brain activity of the pianists was monitored using electroencephalography (EEG) censors. The pianists were asked to imitate what they saw on the screen (while playing a muted piano so that the experiment was conducted in silence) and correctly play through any mistakes present in the chord sequence.

"When we asked [jazz pianists] to play a harmonically unexpected chord within a standard chord progression, their brains started to replan the actions faster than classical pianists," study author Roberta Bianco said in a statement. "Accordingly, they were better able to react and continue their performance." Even though the jazz pianists were better able to make revisions and adapt, the classical pianists performed better in terms of chord fingering.

"The reason could be due to the different demands these styles pose on the musicians — be it to skillfully interpret a classical piece or to creatively improvise in jazz," study leader Daniela Sammler said. "Thereby, different procedures may have established in their brains while playing the piano which makes switching between the styles more difficult."

A pianist may not have a more innate understanding of a style, the authors suggest, but the training over time is responsible for the way the musician’s brain develops, allowing the musicians to be more adept at playing one style over the other.

Maybe you’re more into swing than sonatas, or prefer baroque to bebop. For the musicians who bring you those sweet sounds, the difference is all in the structure of the brain.