A recent study by Johns Hopkins University sheds light on the complex relationship between music and language, finding that jazz musicians, when playing together, use syntactic areas in their brain to communicate.
When jazz musicians “trade fours” they use parts of the brain linked to the structure of spoken language, but not those tied to spoken meaning.
“Trading fours” is a jazz pattern in which musicians play brief alternating solos, usually four bars in length, introducing new melodies in response to each other’s ideas, and then elaborating on and modifying them over the course of a performance.
Based on fMRI brain scans, the results suggest the brain regions that process syntax aren’t limited to analyzing spoken language. Rather, the brain uses those syntactic areas to process communication in general, including communication through music.
“When two jazz musicians seem lost in thought while ‘trading fours,’ they aren’t simply waiting for their turn to play,” says Charles Limb, an associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins University who is also on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory.
“Instead, they are using the syntactic areas of their brain to process what they are hearing so they can respond by playing a new series of notes that hasn’t previously been composed or practiced.”