Brain Processes Music Much Like Spoken Language, New Study Shows

When jazz musicians let their creativity flow and start to improvise melodies, they use parts of their brains typically associated with spoken language — specifically, regions that help people interpret syntax or the structure of sentences, according to a new study.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine in Baltimore tracked brain activity as two jazz musicians played pieces from memory and then engaged in back-and-forth improvisation, creating something akin to a spontaneous musical conversation. They found that areas of the brain associated with syntax and language were very active as the musicians were improvising.

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This could suggest there is a fundamental difference between how the brain processes meaning for music and language.

“Syntax has more to do with grammar and the structure of language — basically the rules of language,” Limb explained. “Semantics has more to do with the meaning of words. So, if music has semantics, it’s not processed in the way that is traditionally used for language.”

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