Brains Of Jazz Musicians Work Differently To Classically Trained Musicians


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

From the "Sounds of Jazz" painting series by Roman Nogin. Roman Nogin/Shutterstock

The inner-workings of creativity might be even more complex, subtle, and beautiful than we previously thought.

It’s known that a musician develops a different brain structure than someone who has never played an instrument, but now scientists think there are also profound differences between the brain activity of musicians who play different styles of music.


Researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany have recently compared the brains of jazz pianists and classically trained pianists, only to discover their brain activity differs significantly, even if they are playing the same piece of music. The results of their research were recently published in the journal NeuroImage.

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

Jazz music is loved for its loose and free-flowing improvisations, while classical music is perhaps associated with a more finely structured approach, a bit like comparing a vibrantly-colored cubist painting to a classical portrait by Michelangelo.

This means that jazz and classical musicians tend to plan their next move along the keys in a different way. In the researchers' words, jazz pianists are focused on “what” notes to play and classical pianists are thinking about “how” their fingers should get to the next key. It seems like a subtle difference, but it relies on a wholly different form of brain activity (pictured below).

How the two different pianists react to unexpected blips in the music they are playing. © MPI CBS

The scientists gathered 30 professional pianists, half of whom specialized in jazz and the other half classically trained. The experiment involved the pianists playing the same sequence of chords that featured odd mistakes in the harmonies. During this, their brain waves were fitted with electroencephalography sensors in the hopes of seeing how the musicians’ brains registered and reacted to unexpected harmonies.

The results showed that the jazz pianists' brains started to replan the actions considerably faster and smoother compared with those of the classical pianists. Roberta Bianco, first author of the study, notes: "Accordingly, they were better able to react and continue their performance."

Next, the team want to delve into other genres of music and different instruments to understand what exactly happens in the brain when we play music. Sammler explains: "Similar to research in language: To recognize the universal mechanisms of processing language we also cannot limit our research to German."


  • tag
  • brain,

  • music,

  • brain activity,

  • plasticity,

  • creativity,

  • jazz,

  • creative,

  • piano,

  • musical