Neural Substrates of Musical Creativity

Charles Limb, M.D.

Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, Otolaryngology

Grant Program:

Clinical Neuroscience Research

Funded in:

December 2009, for 3 years

Funding Amount:


Lay Summary

Understanding the brain basis of spontaneous creativity

Investigators will undertake fMRI imaging in jazz musicians as they create musical improvisations to examine whether the brain areas and processes that give rise to creative behavior are identifiable, consistent, and concrete.

Neuroscientists know little about the brain basis of spontaneous creativity, despite its essential roles in diverse activities spanning the arts and scientific discoveries- adapting to changing environments, solving problems and using language. The investigators’ prior fMRI imaging studies on spontaneous creativity used musical improvisation as a prototype. Those studies showed activation during musical improvisation of the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex—involved in self-organizing and generated behaviors that are internally motivated and independent of external stimuli. Concurrently, other areas of the prefrontal cortex—involved in focused attention—are deactivated. Based on these findings, the investigators hypothesize that innovative internally motivated production of novel material occurs outside of conscious awareness and beyond volitional control.

This hypothesis is consistent with an emerging scientific view that the medial prefrontal cortex, and especially its frontal polar cortex, may be a constituent of a “default” system related to internal control that is typically more active at rest and may be related to altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, meditation and daydreaming.  Spontaneous improvised creativity, therefore, may be defocused, free-floating attention that permits unplanned associations and sudden insights or realizations.

Now the researchers plan to undertake two studies with jazz musicians to further examine the brain basis of spontaneous creativity. One study is designed to examine the neural basis for the generative and interactive “musical conversation” between two jazz musicians during improvisation. Ten professional jazz pianists (five pairs) will engage in a musical call and answer (called “trading fours”): one musician plays the jazz melody (outside the scanner) and the other, while in an fMRI scanner and using a keyboard, responds with musical improvisation. The investigators hypothesize that improvisation is associated with increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (self-generating activities) and concurrent reduction in lateral prefrontal activity (focused attention). Also, they predict, the musical exchanges will be associated with increased activity in the brain’s language areas.

The second study will examine the relationship between neural processes involved in creativity and emotion, and whether a decrease in the brain’s limbic system activity (involved in emotion) relates to a reduction in self-monitoring behavior during musical creativity.  For this study, ten piano jazz musicians, while undergoing fMRI scanning, will be given a negative, neutral or positive word cue, and asked to improvise music on the keyboard reflecting that emotion. The hypothesis: limbic activity is modulated according to the emotional content being produced, rather than in response to the act of improvisation in general.


Neural Substrates of Musical Creativity

Despite the central role of creativity in art, the quantitative examination of creativity has been an elusive area of study for scientists. This proposal begins with the hypothesis that although the creative process in art is both subjective and highly individual, the neural processes and substrates that give rise to creative behavior are identifiable, consistent, and concrete. Two specific aims are proposed for this proposal. The first aim is to identify neural substrates engaged during spontaneous musical discourse. Here we propose to examine the neural basis for such "musical conversation". Professional jazz musicians will undergo functional MRI scans in which they will play a piano keyboard specifically designed for use in the MRI setting during which they will hear four bars of music and then respond to the four bars with a related, but novel improvisation. For the control task during this paradigm, subjects will be asked to reproduce the four bars of music as they heard it, without improvising a novel response to it. We hypothesize that improvised musical exchanges will be associated with regional increases in cerebral blood flow in classical perisylvian language regions (superior temporal gyrus, inferior parietal lobule, inferior frontal gyrus) as well as reciprocal modulation of prefrontal cortical actvity (increased medial prefrontal and diminished lateral prefrontal activity) in comparison to non-improvised, memorized musical performance. The second aim of the proposal is to identify neural substrates involved during affectively motivated musical improvisation, to determine how limbic activity is modulated according to the emotional content being produced. In this experiment, ten right-handed jazz pianists will participate in an fMRI scanning session during which they will be asked to improvise music using an fMRI-compatible piano keyboard. The subjects will be given a series of affective target words (e.g. joyful, angry, bored, wistful) that range in emotional valence from very positive to neutral to very negative and will be asked to improvise a one minute composition that musically reflects the target emotion. Functional imaging data analysis will be performed to assess modulation of limbic regions according to predicted emotional valence. We hypothesize that limbic activity in regions that subserve pleasure will increase with positive emotional valence improvisation, whereas negative valence will lead to decreases in activity in these limbic regions. These studies will shed important new light on the relationship between neural substrates for creativity and emotion, and how they interact with one another during behavior that is spontaneous, creative and affectively motivated.

Investigator Biographies

Charles Limb, M.D.

Dr. Charles Limb is an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he is a hearing specialist and auditory researcher. He is also a Faculty Member at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. He received his undergraduate degree in political science at Harvard University and his medical degree at Yale University, followed by surgical residency and fellowship in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at Johns Hopkins with Dr. David Ryugo studying the development of the auditory brainstem, and a second postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health with Dr. Allen Braun studying neural mechanisms of music production and perception using functional neuroimaging methods. His current areas of interest focus on the study of creativity and the study of music perception in deaf individuals with cochlear implants. His work has been featured by National Public Radio, Canadian national radio, the New York Times, Associated Press, the Library of Congress, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the American Museum of Natural History.