This Is Your Brain On Jazz
by Felix Contreras
Five year old Carsen Q. was riding in a car with her grandmother in California the other day. The car radio was tuned to a news talk station, so Carsen asked her Nana to change it. So it was changed to an oldies station. Then Carsen asked for a jazz station.
Why a jazz station, Nana asked.
"I like jazz. It makes my ears tickle."
True story -- Nana is a friend of mine. And believe it or not, there is a scientific study to back up that way cool bit of kindergarten cuteness.
Well, sort of. In 2008, scientists at Johns Hopkins University took a look at how jazz musicians' brains work while improvising: how and why jazz tickles them.
(Here's a link to the actual study. Man, I should have paid more attention back in high school.)
NPR's Susan Stamberg, who's partial to jazz singers, interviewed the researchers about their study for Weekend Edition.
That study tied in nicely to an inspired series of lectures later at the Library of Congress here in Washington. You can even download a podcast of Dr. Charles J. Limb talking about his study here. The series was created to take a look at the growing field of "neuromusic" -- the intersection of science, medicine and music. Some of the talks also offered classical and jazz concerts.
I especially like the following sentence from the LOC Web site: "What went on in Charlie Parker's medial prefrontal cortex as he started soloing on 'Ornithology'?" I'd bet the rent that was the first time that question has appeared in print.
Yet while all that science focused on performance, it made me wonder about the physiology of jazz audiences as they listened to Bird play "Ornithology." Well, little Carsen had the very unscientific yet definitive answer for that when she said, "Jazz makes my heart smile!"
Hey Carsen, we should hang out.
10:12 AM ET | 02- 5-2010 | permalink