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?