For further study of the brain, I suggest making a lime JELL-O model. Yum.

As an addendum to why trying to make computer models musically creative can be so disastrous, maybe the problem is we fail to understand what creativity is.

Scientists funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) have found that, when jazz musicians are engaged in the highly creative and spontaneous activity known as improvisation, a large region of the brain involved in monitoring one’s performance is shut down, while a small region involved in organizing self-initiated thoughts and behaviors is highly activated.

Study: Prefrontal Cortex In Jazz Musicians Winds Down When Improvising [scientificblogging]

That’s just one study, and I won’t pretend to be an expert in neuroscience. But what the scientists are describing is awfully close to the nuanced way jazz musicians will describe improv. It’s not not thinking. But it’s also not self-monitoring. It’s something else.

In other words, the self-judging prefrontal cortex — the part you can easily model as a set of computer software rules — switches off, but another area of the brain hits overdrive. And “self-initiated” is exactly what’s lacking in computing technology.

But this has another implication, now that so many of us use computers in performance. For one, the lack of initiation from our computer companion means computers may be fundamentally unsatisfying as accompanists or “duets,” no matter how many rules or interactive behaviors we stuff into them. Maybe we don’t have to view them that way — maybe we should think of them as an extension of composition or an instrument. After all, a person with a laptop is usually a solo artist.

But the other likely implication is that, as many readers here have noted, we need to set up computers in ways that allow us to shot down part of the prefrontal cortex when playing. That’s a complex thing: you want your software to help you get into the zone. It doesn’t mean not thinking — quite the opposite. It means taking away distractions, partly feeling good enough about a performance to be able to stop the “self-monitoring” behavior, and partly giving yourself enough to do, musically, that another part of your brain actually has to work harder to proceed. Readers noted earlier this week that music notation can be musically distracting — not surprising, given many musicians make the effort to memorize a piece for exactly this reason.

But in addition to shutting down one section of your head, you want to activate another. That could also mean that tools that automatically limit your playing to specific scales, while they seem to make things easier, prevent your brain from reaching the level of activity when you feel the most inspired — like failing to make an exercise cardiovascular.

Thanks to Richard Lainhart for sending along this article (via the Electronic Music Foundation list).

How do you get into the zone playing live — particularly if you do use a computer?

  • depending on situation…i'll attach external hardware effect processors (i.e. tempo based, long count delay lines) to the computer to keep beat breaking and beat juggling in real time and improvisational mode. it gives enough breathing room to let you flow the creative improvisational juices 😀

  • BirdFLU

    "That could also mean that tools that automatically limit your playing to specific scales, while they seem to make things easier, prevent your brain from reaching the level of activity when you feel the most inspired — like failing to make an exercise cardiovascular."

    You lost me here. Why do you think a force-to-scale function would prevent your brain from "letting go?" It seems to me if you're not worried about staying in tune, that would HELP shut down the part of the brain that monitor's ones performance.

  • No wonder there's no jazz improv test in Brain Age. 🙂

  • Actually, BirdFLU, good point — I guess I mean, to keep the other part of me activated, I still want a certain amount of control and resistance. It's possible the scale is not what's needed, but then I want control over something else, resistance in some way — the right amount of "hardness."

  • I've always found that my best performances happen when I'm comfortable enough to distance myself from what I'm playing, as if I were just listening to a CD and enjoying it. At its best it's an almost out-of-body thing. Then it's like you're listening to music (rather than playing) and subtly tweaking it where you want to.

    That pretty much describes what the study is saying, I think.

    As for software, things need to become invisible until you WANT to interact with them, and then be able to drop into the background again. Jamie Lidell seems to be the master of this – they should teach college classes on his live show with Max/MSP.

  • BirdFLU

    Peter, I think I know what you're saying. I guess we're talking about an area that doesn't have a language to properly describe it, other than the musical output itself. Like Laurie Anderson said "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

  • I'd be willing to bet there are parallels between these tests and those done on monks in a transcendental meditative state.

  • martron

    I second jonathan's comment that my best improv experiences seem to be out of body. Indeed I also think my best listening experiences have a similar effect and in both cases my eyes are closed.

    Currently most computer systems are highly visual and I think that detracts from my ability to have a satisfying computer based improv experience. I think the relationship to the computer needs to be more embodied. When I play saxophone, I'm subconsciously processing a lot of information in the feel of what I'm playing. The way my sax reverberates, my mouthpiece, my reed… How my fingers feel this, how my mouth, my touch sense all this…

  • james

    Great post!

    It sounds like they're talking about Flow.

    The study used jazz musicians, but writers, programmers, mathematicians, visual artists, dancers have all described being in a similar state.

    Maybe it'd also be helpful to think about computer music performance as an entity separate from a traditional musical instrument performance, not looking for analogues to things you blow in or beat on.

    I think most of us performing with computers aren't reading notation and taking instruction from them as what's been described here as distracting, we're just playing instruments that have a visual element. That visual element would probably be less necessary if anyone actually put anywhere near the time into practicing with a specific performance setup that most musicians spend with their instruments.

  • martron

    Thanks for the wikipedia link. The paper by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi that I read on wednesday makes way more sense now 😉

    The section on video games piqued my interest. Maybe 'improv ai' in a system could benefit from game design principles. Prompting the user through a story, series of events or challenges? Trying to trigger this flow…

  • kobe

    primasluta, good point. add cannabis 'research' to that list as well 😡

    -or was that already implied, as these were jazz musicians?

  • TJ

    Having spent years thinking and experimenting with computer music-generation (as well as computer sentence-generation), I'm pretty sure that's nothing to worry about.

    Doing variations on existing forms (typed in or read from MIDI files) is possible; changing keys is possible, stuff like that.

    But: while 40 years ago some felt that computer intelligence was on the horizon, we've learned since then how much we have to know, that we take for granted, and how little we understand ourselves.

    Computers can be programmed – by humans – to mimic well-understood human behavior. But I predict that computer learning, except for the relatively trivial, is far, far away. And it's hardly worth pursuing, when so many of us want to make music.

  • It's hard to imagine not being interested in neuroscience when your whole artform relies on the fascinating capacities of human perception. Very interesting study.

    I'm going to disagree with the "similar state" or writers, visual artists, etc. Though being "in the moment" of course is similar, totally different parts of the brain are being utilized during improvisation. It's especially different with PCs versus my first love, saxophone. Electronic hardware use typically involves consciousness of technical details, whereas playing an improv solo does not. You'd better already know what the bits under your hands are supposed to do before you start playing!

    It really is an amazing experience, ever as one performs it, of generating scads of syncopated notes cascading along in lengths and pauses, polyrhythms, playing off of and leaving the base tonal area of the accompaniment. Your mind cannot consciously parse all that's going on, but your "subconscious" for lack of more precise term is capable of understanding and responding at a speed that leaves your "conscious" mind aghast.

  • flip

    @primusluta: I meditate almost daily and have played jazz for about 25 years…and would have to say I don't find them similar. When improvising, I am extremely alert to the input of my ears. When meditating, I am not. It would still be a very interesting comparison though.

    @kobe: "-or was that already implied, as these were jazz musicians?"

    Yeah, but then the scientists doing the monitoring would probably screw up the data or forget where they put it due to second hand smoke. On that note, I can can compose tons of music very quickly using computers, but if you gave me a drag of some good sh*t, I'd be useless. My set-up is too complex for any half-baked errors! I've actually seen increased productivity when composing while hungry…it makes you much more quick/alert.

  • Hi,

    this is the kind of post who give value to CDM, thanks to everybody.

    I'm more interested in creating performance with the aid of computer, than to the music itself. Thus I share the "out of body " approach, more than the procedural IRCAM way.

    When we speak about AI we should keep in mind that in AI we can have two approach as bottom-up (with neural nets) or the reverse way (with formalized rules or high abstraction level).

    Both approaches are valid, but in this case it looks like that a neural approach is nearer to what we are searching.

    It's not overtly difficult to write down a back propagation net, who learn maybe from your playing.

    It would be interesting to create this kind of code and play along. At least in theory the net could replicate more or less your way of playing .. a kind of ghost in the machine …

    Good point the suggestion to "close your eyes" (which effectively change the electromagnetic activity of the brain); of course we need to be really confident in our equipment … and in our stage training.

    But we should not forget that intelligence is not only in he brain, but in the full body.

    (well, at least this my official excuse to use the Gypsy controller…).


  • This just proves what I've always said about jazz, it is 4 guys in the same room playing different songs. Not only is one not monitoring their performance (ie listening) they aren't monitoring anyone else's performance either!

    When it comes to getting in the zone I do it best when I don't have to think about the technology onstage. As much as I'd love to be able to really manipulate my songs onstage it takes away from my singing and just distracts me. I do am much programming as possible before hand so that I have to hit the least amount of button onstage. My geek brain and performer brain are very different. Fluqe's Onstage has been great for that. Well that is until the time I was hit a patch change that I didn't mean to. That took me right out of the groove!!

  • Bruce

    Erm… as a jazz musician I must say that what Shane King says is not accurate… at all. You have to listen in jazz, or else things don't gel and it doesn't sound good. There is a difference between not monitoring the lines one is playing during a solo and entirely shutting out everyting around oneself. Some guys do shut out everyone else when they are soloing, but they do not sound good and are a pain to play witn (especially for the rhythm section).

  • Well, Phish says that the key to jamming is listening to your bandmates and not to your own playing.

  • Shane, sounds like you've never been there.

    flip, i wasn't really talking about the state, but the scientific study. there was one done on on monks in the meditative state. they were monitoring the brain waves of the monks (alpha beta delta). i'll get the waves all wrong, but basically it was found that in the state the monks transcended noral consciousness to a state closer to lucid dream likeness but beyond. i think with improvisation its a similar experience but grounded in the shared experience not the personal introspection.

    kobe i know you jest but there is something to the druggie musician angle too.

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  • hey.


    I'd be interested if anyone has an interesting computer improvisation platform setup. For one player to start off…

    Something abit more sophisticated than the long delays' etc, at the first post