Musical Improvisation in the Brain

By Ramie Fathy

Charles Limb plays a bass guitar
Charles Limb, MD, professor of otolaryngology, plays a bass guitar. Photo by Barbara Ries

Imagine you’re at a concert, and in the middle of a song, the band slowly gets quiet. Instruments drop out one by one until it’s just the drums keeping the beat. All of a sudden, you hear the keyboard chime back in, first a few notes here and there, and then an all-out improvised solo.

The song is reminiscent of the one the band was playing earlier, but somehow brand new and full of emotion, varying in tempo, volume and range – and it’s something that will never be produced again.

How do artists produce such unique, emotive, and coherent pieces of music with no sheet music or practice to guide them?

That question has fascinated Charles Limb, MD, professor of otolaryngology at UC San Francisco, for many years. In addition to his work as a cochlear implant surgeon, Limb studies how we create and perceive music.

“Improvisation is this prototypical creative behavior that may serve as a model for how we understand the human brain,” said Limb.

Limb shared his decades of work on the neural underpinnings of creativity and improvisation in a recent episode of Carry the One Radio. Limb, a life-long music fan who plays saxophone, piano and bass guitar, also spent years at the National Institutes of Health, where he gained the skills needed to conduct scientific studies on how the brain produces creativity.

Underlying Limb’s work is the notion that musical improvisation, as with any human behavior, must be orchestrated by the brain. By visualizing and studying the brain activity of master musicians as they improvise in an fMRI machines, he is beginning to understand how they are able to spontaneously create original, harmonious music.

Limb’s research has spanned a range of musical genres, from jazz piano to rap, highlighting similarities and differences between improvisation in the two musical forms. Limb and his team have suggested areas of the brain that are crucial for creativity, and how consciousness, self-censoring, and risk-taking factor into improvisation.

Creativity is central to the human experience, says Limb. “Humans die if they’re not able to problem solve and innovate,” he said. “Human creativity is the reason we are able to be innovative, advance the society, make progress.”