Two New Studies Say Musicians Are Way Better Than You’ll Ever Be

Just kidding. You can’t blame me for wanting to join in on the fun that is awful science journalism.

Two recently published studies caught my eye this week as I perused my facebook feed the heaps of science journals I have surrounding me at every given moment. Both involve a couple of my favorite things: music and neurology. Mmm. Put those two together and you’ve got a recipe for awesome. Kind of.

The first I noticed was a study performed at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, which sought to determine two things: whether or not jazz musicians could tell if other jazz musicians were improvising or reading a rehearsed piece, and whether or not the active regions in a listening jazz musician’s brain would change according to these differences.

They recorded improvised solos of three jazz pianists, transcribed the solos to sheet music, then switched the solos around and had each musician play the written version of another musician’s improvisation. This was also recorded, then played back for 22 jazz pianists who sat hooked up to an fMRI and were asked to determine which was the original improvisation and which was the written-down version.

Before I go on to the results of this study, I’ll say that my initial thought was a resounding “Duh.” Of course jazz musicians can tell when other musicians aren’t improvising. In a big band setting when one is expected to play a written solo (though this is routinely and staunchly discouraged, unless the solo is ridiculously famous or something), musicians strive to make it sound improvised, the assumption being that it’ll sound flat and unhip if the musician just reads the notes. Seeing that they did this study made me feel the same way as if I’d seen someone do a study on whether or not people outdoors can tell if it’s raining. You can always tell.

Apparently I was wrong. In only 55% of cases could the listeners detect when somebody was playing something they’d seen and worked through and practiced versus when somebody was making something up on the spot. The light at the end of the tunnel, I guess, was that the fMRI showed that the listening musicians’ brains activated the same centers while listening to these solos as they would if they were playing themselves — the same principle previously studied in people in a vegetative state who were instructed to imagine playing tennis, for instance.

Why I’m skeptical: 22 is not much of a sample size. Beyond that, check out the stats on the subjects:

The analyzed sample of listeners consisted of 22 healthy male jazz musicians (mean age = 24 years; range 19–32 years) who had on average 12.8 years (SD 6.8) of piano playing experience, 6.8 years (SD 4.8) of which involved playing jazz. Piano was the primary instrument for 7 of the participants and the second instrument for 15 participants. The average amount of time spent practicing the piano per day was 1 h (SD 1), with 0.5 h (SD 0.7) focused on jazz….Participants’ current total amount of musical activity included an average of 2.7 h/day (SD 2.3) playing their instruments, with 1.5 h (SD 1.9) devoted to jazz. In addition, participants spent on average 7.3 h/week (SD 5.8) playing in musical ensembles, with 4.1 h (SD 5.5) of ensemble play focusing on jazz.

Placing aside the joke I desperately want to make about what constitutes a “healthy male jazz musician,” the levels of jazz piano training in these subjects is atrocious. Fewer than a third of them claim piano as their primary instrument. The rates of standard deviation suggest that a few of these subjects don’t practice jazz piano at all, and some even practice their primary instrument for less than an hour a day.

Before you dutifully point out that it doesn’t necessarily take a jazz pianist to tell when a pianist is improvising, since anyone versed in jazz could probably do just as well, check this out: They found that “accuracy was negatively correlated with the age at which individuals started playing the piano, particularly jazz piano, and positively correlated with the number of hours per week spent playing jazz piano in ensembles.” The spread of accuracy ranged from 40–65%, with five participants scoring 60-65%. If their data is worth trusting, that means that a new batch of subjects who are professional jazz pianists would do miles better. It’s kind of like finding that a bunch of students in an English class have trouble understanding Shakespeare and declaring that all writers don’t understand it. You need subjects with a bit more training before you’re allowed to make sweeping generalizations like that.

By the way, if you want to test your own ability to determine who’s playing something from sheet music and who’s faking it, the bottom of this article includes two pairs of samples. Try your luck!

The second study I found comes from a team of three universities in Iowa, Norway, and Sweden that studied mind-brain development in classical musicians (abstract here). The study had a variety of focuses, including moral reasoning (do you do things because it benefits you, because the law says so, for a philosophical reason, etc?), executive functioning (inhibitions, abstract thinking, cognitive flexibility) and peak experiences (really good, almost transcendental feelings).

Turns out that, according to the study, classical musicians’ brains kick ass. They have “well coordinated frontal lobes,” which assist in planning and logical thinking. They use their brains’ resources economically, kicking them into high gear when the situation calls for it but with the ability to relax when it’s not that big of a deal. Peak experiences happen more frequently. In addition, there were brain differences between the amateur and professional musicians they studied, as professional musicians showed higher moral reasoning, better attention span, and less interference by the Stroop effect (a whimsical little test that makes you name the hue of a word that’s spelled out as one color but printed in another). According to Science Daily, these are the same results found among “world-class athletes, top-level managers, and individuals who practice transcendental meditation.”

Why I’m skeptical: Number one, the Iowa university I mentioned happens to be Maharishi University of Management, whose website’s tagline belies its focus on “consciousness-based education.” This alone doesn’t debunk their findings, but it definitely raises an eyebrow. Along with this is a pretty dubious quote by Maharishi’s Dr. Fred Travis (who also got his Ph.D. from this institution) in the Science Daily article:

Fred Travis emphasizes that everything we do changes our brain. Transcendental meditation and making music are activities people should devote themselves to if they wish to change their mind in the right direction…How you think also plays a role.

“If you are a very envious, angry, mean person and that’s the way you think about people that’s what’s going to be strengthened in your brain. But if you are very expanded and open and supportive of others, there will be different connections,” says Fred Travis.

I’m not a neurologist and I haven’t studied the literature, so I’ll hold off on judgement, but the idea of negative thinking somehow “harming” your brain sets off alarm bells in mine. It’s true that studies of trancendental meditation have suggested very real effects in the brain (mostly in pain relief and attention span), but the idea that the act of meditating, playing music, or playing sports can actually make you smarter sounds a little bit like a violation of Occam’s Razor: Isn’t it more likely that professional musicians, world-class athletes, and top-level managers are simply smarter on their own? Wouldn’t they have to be to get to that level? This is likely especially with the differences shown between amateur and professional musicians: maybe the amateurs are just amateurs because they’re not smart enough to become professionals.

As much as I’d like to run through the streets declaring that I’m extremely intelligent and can fool musicians and laypeople alike with my improvisational prowess, I think this is all going to take a lot more study.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. Good stuff, thanks. I find I have to crank up my critical thinking knob (patent pending) pretty high when I’m looking at studies about music — especially when they present evidence for something that I really really want to be true. Such hard work, thinking….

  2. Oh, go on, admit it…you know we musicians are WAY smarter than the average bear! 🙂

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