* * 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.