Does what kind of music you play alter the benefits you get by playing it?
We've talked before about how learning to play music is great for your brain. By fostering better connections between different regions of the brain, playing music can help promote neural development and can support memory, spatial reasoning, and verbal intelligence. The studies that demonstrate these benefits rarely focus on the sort of music played, however, leaving it possible that the genre played has some influence as well.
In fact, a new study shows that the genre you learn might have an effect on how you handle the unexpected.
A small study by Emily Przysinda of Wesleyan University suggests that the brains of jazz musicians react differently to unexpected events than the brains of classical musicians or non-musicians. It also supports previous findings that learning to play music at all improves creativity.
In the study, 12 jazz musicians, 12 classical musicians, and 12 non-musicians were asked to carry out two tasks. The first was a simple creativity task where they were asked to make a list of all possible uses for a paper clip. They were then scored for both the originality of content, with more points being given for answers not appearing on any other participant's list, and for the number of responses delivered in the time limit.
As you might expect, the musicians performed much better on the creativity portion of the test than the non-musicians and at a similar level to each other. The jazz musicians did score higher on the originality portion of the test than anyone else, however.
The test is more difficult than you'd think.
The second task was a little more interesting. The subjects were asked to listen to a chord progression of "either of high, medium, or low expectation, as predicted by musical theory" while connected to electroencephalography sensors. They were asked to rate how much they enjoyed what they heard.
The non-musicians strongly favored the music that adhered to their expectations. The classical musicians ranked the progressions in the high and medium expectation range similarly. Only the jazz players showed no differentiation between their enjoyment of the progressions of high and low expectation levels.
The brain scans showed curious results. They indicated a relationship between the creativity of a subject and the strength of the P3b neural response. The exact nature of the response varied between not only the musicians and non-musicians but also between the jazz and classical players.
The authors themselves described the neuro findings as:
ERP results showed that unexpected stimuli elicited larger early and mid-latency ERP responses (ERAN and P3b), followed by smaller long-latency responses (Late Positivity Potential) in jazz musicians. The amplitudes of these ERP components were significantly correlated with behavioral measures of fluency and originality on the divergent thinking task.
In other words, the jazz musicians responded faster to unexpected changes than the other subjects. A similar study comparing jazz and classical musicians using brain scans also showed that jazz musicians were able to react to an unexpected change in chord progressions faster and with less neurological effort than their classically trained peers.
Jazz musician Miles Davis, a master of improvisation and unexpected musical choices.
The researchers suggest that the jazz musicians, who study a musical tradition that places a high value on improvisation and often uses strange chord structures, were well trained to expect the unexpected.
While the classical musicians still showed the benefits of their musical studies when compared to the non-musicians they were more shaken by the unexpected chord changes than the jazz players were.
As usual, a study involving 36 people and another one with only 30 subjects cannot be thought of as definitive. They can, however, be seen as a starting point for further research. Given the slew of previous studies that show us how brain activity and structure can be affected by the study of music, the findings do fall in line with the accepted science in principle.
The benefits of learning music have been known for millennia. Today, with the benefits of neuroscience, we can understand exactly why and how it benefits us at a deeper level than ever before. While more evidence is needed before we can say that learning jazz offers distinct benefits that learning other genres can't. I for one am going to break out my saxophone and try to learn to play Take Five.
"The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think," Albert Einstein said. So go back to school, Ivy League style.
The idea of continuing to learn new things after leaving school is an attractive one, but one that can seem daunting. Finding both the time and the proper resources to learn something new can prove difficult, and leave us with unsatisfied curiosity. Even if we find a class we might be interested in, the cost can be prohibitive.
So, to help you curious cats out, we present 8 online classes from Yale you can take right now, at no cost.
Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics
Who hasn’t looked up at the night sky and wondered about the mysteries of the cosmos? This series of video and audio lectures covers the big questions of space, such as back holes, extra-solar planets, and dark energy, while discussing both what we know and what we wish we knew. Course notes are also available to help you review after school lets out.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote
It can be difficult to tackle a classic novel with little to no help. For those who want to read this classic of world literature but don’t quite know where to start, this series of video lectures help facilitate a close reading of one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. There are 24 one-hour lectures in this set, organized by chapter so you can find the area you need help understanding and start there. It's like being part of the world's brainiest book club.
Do you know why a good deal is a good deal? Why people act the way they do when confronted with a lose-lose situation? Game Theory is the study of how people react to problems of conflict and cooperation and it's used in business, politics, and even computer science. This course consists of 24 one-hour lectures, and you can also download the exams and solutions to test how well you understood the course. For a taster, here's Professor Barry Nalebuff from the Yale School of Management who came to the Big Think studio to discuss Game Theory:
Introduction to Ancient Greek History
The Glory that was Greece: we’ve all seen the statues, heard the big names, and benefit from their achievements, but do you know the story of how it all happened? This series of 24 lectures, some clocking in at over an hour, introduces the history of ancient Greece to us from the Dark Ages to the rise of Alexander. While the lectures might not leave you speaking Greek, it will leave you with a better understanding of why the world today is the way it is. There are also downloadable files that can help you remember the keywords, dates, and big events.
Moralities of Everyday Life
You have some idea of what kindness is, right? Can you explain it? How responsible are we for our moral stances? In this course, provided via Coursera, the moral psychology behind many of the concepts we use in our everyday thinking is examined and explained in readings and video lectures. The class materials can be viewed for free, or taken as a graded class for a fee. The recommended commitment is 2-3 hours per week. Bonus: this course is taught by Big Think favorite Professor Paul Bloom:
Journey of the Universe: The Unfolding of Life
Have you ever wanted to learn the story of life, the universe, and everything?* In this series of classes, available both to English and Chinese speakers, the story of the universe and the evolution of biological life is examined. In later lectures, new ways to understand our place in the ever-changing universe are examined. The classes consist of readings and video lectures, and for a fee you can also take quizzes to see how well you understand the material.
Introduction to Classical Music
You know all the names: Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach—but do you know why their classical music still endures? In this class, you can learn what elements classical music is comprised of, why the great symphonies are still played before crowds of millions, and even come to appreciate other genres of music a little more too. This nine-week course consists of lectures and readings that take 2-3 hours per week. This course can also be viewed for free, or taken as a graded class for a fee. (Really want to get those grades? Financial aid via Coursera is available for those who qualify.)
Fundamentals of Physics I & II
If you want to understand how the world really works, this comprehensive series of physics classes will put you in the know. This class requires a strong understanding of mathematics as an entry point, but is highly rewarding for those who can follow along, and basic calculus is reviewed in the first few videos. Problem sets and solutions are also available for those who want an extra challenge.
The above selection is just a small sampling of the courses offered by Yale, and the full list of classes can be found here and here. Many other excellent institutions have similar options. So, now that you know, you can view Ivy League-quality lectures online for free, whenever the mood strikes. Now there's just one question left: what are you waiting for?
* The answer is 42.