John Coltrane and Jerry Garcia became improvising legends for their ability to mix musical elements on the fly. How the brain accomplishes such feats of creativity under pressure remains a mystery, though practice is increasingly thought to play a pivotal role.
Now, in a new study in the journal Psychology of Music, Columbia University researchers show that skilled improvisers are better than musicians with limited improvisational experience at distinguishing between chords that can be used interchangeably in a piece of music and chords that cannot. Further, when the improvisers recognized a chord unsuitable for substitution, their brains showed a pattern of electrical activity distinct from non-improvising musicians.
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