It takes a lot of practice to learn an instrument. Those who manage it have taught their brains as well as their hands: musicians’ brains tick differently. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences in Leipzig have now found out how far this goes. Jazz pianists have different brain processes than classical pianists, even if they play the same piece of music.

Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett already knew it: When he was asked in an interview with a music magazine whether he could imagine playing both jazz and classical music in a concert, he replied: “No, I think that would be madness […], practically impossible. […] Your system relies on different circuits for both directions.”

The reason for this is probably the different planning of movements when playing the piano, explains Sammler. Of course, pianists, regardless of their style, must first know what they are playing – that is, which keys they must press. Then there is the question of how they play a piece – which fingers they use to operate these keys. Neuropsychologist Sammler explains that the weighting of “what” and “how” varies depending on the musical style.

“The classical pianists focus very strongly on how they make the piece expressive. There is a lot to do with how the piece is played. Our data showed that the classical pianists had reproduced the fingerings that they were supposed to play in accordance with our specifications much more correctly. ” Dr. Daniela Sammler, Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences

The jazz pianists, on the other hand, have been very flexible in processing even surprising changes because they are very aware of the harmonies they play and which are possible following a chord they have just played.

Examination of 30 professional pianists

For their study, the scientists examined 30 professional pianists. Half of them have specialised in jazz for at least two years, the other half in classical music. Many of the test persons are students of the Leipzig University of Music and Drama “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy”.

The test persons saw a hand on a screen playing a sequence of chords on a piano – peppered with tripping hazards in the harmonies and fingerings. The pianists were asked to play exactly what they saw on the screen, including all the errors. Meanwhile, their brain waves were measured. The goal: to find out how the pianists plan their playing.

“In fact, we were able to see the flexibility trained in jazz pianists in planning harmonies while playing the piano in the brain,” explains Roberta Bianco, first author of the study. “When, during a logical sequence of chords, we suddenly let them play a harmonically unexpected chord, their brain began to reschedule the action much earlier than the classical pianist. Accordingly, they were able to react faster to the unexpected situation and continue playing.” The classical pianists, on the other hand, found it much easier to adjust to unusual fingerings. Because their brain pays more attention to the fingering, they have made fewer mistakes in imitating it.

“And now it has occurred that the pianists who have a classical education have had no problems with fingering errors and our jazz pianists have had no problems with harmony errors.” Dr. Daniela Sammler, Max-Planck-Institut für Kognitions- und Neurowissenschaften

The researchers had hoped to discover such a difference, says Daniela Sammler. “We are dealing here with highly trained people. Both groups are wonderful pianists, but their brains have adapted very precisely to different requirements.

“You can compare this with cycling, the Tour de France: There you have the sprinters and the climbers. So these are cyclists who are trained for mountain or flatter stages and what one can do, the other can’t. So a sprinter is seldom good at mountain biking and vice versa, simply because different muscle groups are trained.”
Dr. Daniela Sammler, Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences

Applications that learners hope for

The tests with the pianists have shown how finely tuned our brain reacts to the demands of its environment, explains neuropsychologist Daniela Sammler. If you want to understand what happens universally in the brain when we play music, you have to concentrate on more than just one style of music. So far, however, this has mainly been done with Western classical music. The Max Planck Institute’s research is basic research. They serve for the general understanding of the processes in our brain.