* * mental fireworks * *

Last week I shared an excel­lent TED-Ed talk about the neu­ro­science of music mak­ing. Though it is only five min­utes long, this talk illus­trates the gym­nas­tic men­tal con­nec­tions acti­vated by instru­men­tal music-making. It makes me want to see my own fMRI scan when impro­vis­ing with other musicians.

Since shar­ing that video, I had the oppor­tu­nity to put all of my neuro-musical skills to the test. By now, you have all read about my expe­ri­ences with Out of Your Head, Baltimore’s pre­miere free music col­lec­tive. I have spent most Tues­day nights at The Windup Space, which is a few short blocks north of my city apart­ment, and the musi­cal home of the col­lec­tive. The music is always impro­vised; the groups are always unique. The fol­low­ing two sam­ples came from a “quar­tet night” on July 29th.

OOYH bass quar­tet sample

OOYH gui­tar quar­tet sample

After meet­ing many of the tal­ented musi­cians in the col­lec­tive, I finally had the oppor­tu­nity to per­form with them last Tues­day. I received a mes­sage in the morn­ing that I would be per­form­ing that evening dur­ing the late set. I would be shar­ing the stage with Jon Birk­holz (k) & Ben Zurier (dr). As usual with Out of Your Head, we had never played with each other before. As the new man in town, it was my first time even meet­ing these musi­cians! The trio con­sisted of drums and two key­boards & elec­tron­ics. We played two songs.

I like to think of impro­vised music as a dynamic con­ver­sa­tion. By draw­ing on years of tech­ni­cal prac­tice, lis­ten­ing skills, emo­tional per­cep­tions, and their inter­play, musi­cians have an abil­ity to con­struct a coher­ent state­ment to trans­mit into the world. Though anal­o­gous to com­po­si­tion, an impro­viser must be able to do this at the speed of thought. Like the best din­ner par­ties, great impro­vi­sa­tion leaves you feel­ing engaged and want­ing more.

By using the tools of mod­ern sci­ence to inves­ti­gate phys­i­cal processes, it is pos­si­ble to see a phys­i­cal basis for the amaz­ing syn­er­gies in a live band. It is really not fair to try and cap­ture this dynamic with short audio sam­ples, as I did above. You can not hear how the pieces devel­oped over time. You can not watch the musi­cians interacting—or not—on stage with each other. You can not hear the way sub­tle nudges from one musi­cian prop­a­gate through the whole ensem­ble. What you can hear, how­ever briefly, is the focus each musi­cian is bring­ing to their cor­ner of the ensem­ble. Each player gives of him or her­self for the good of the other play­ers, and the audi­ence. In the brain, each region com­bines to syn­the­size motor, aural, emo­tional, and tem­po­ral impulses. In the ensem­ble, each player com­bines rhythms, pitches, tim­bers, and feels. Many indi­vid­ual parts are mas­saged into a uni­fied whole. Musi­cians are con­stantly train­ing to be empathic col­lab­o­ra­tors. It seems the lat­est research only rein­forces the impor­tance of explor­ing deeper col­lab­o­ra­tions, which excel­lent musi­cians have know about all along.