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Jazz study shows link between music and language

Published: 2014-02-20
WASHINGTON (AP) - Jazz musicians are famous for their musical conversations - one improvises a few bars and another plays an answer. Now research shows some of the brain's language regions enable that musical back-and-forth much like a spoken conversation.

It gives new meaning to the idea of music as a universal language.

The finding, published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One, is the latest in the growing field of musical neuroscience: Researchers are using how we play and hear music to illuminate different ways that the brain works.

And to Dr. Charles Limb, a saxophonist-turned-hearing specialist at Johns Hopkins University, the spontaneity that is a hallmark of jazz offered a rare chance to compare music and language.

“They appear to be talking to one another through their instruments," Limb explained. “What happens when you have a musical conversation?"

Watching brains on jazz requires getting musicians to lie flat inside a cramped MRI scanner that measures changes in oxygen use by different parts of the brain as they play.

An MRI machine contains a giant magnet - meaning no trumpet or sax. So Limb had a special metal-free keyboard manufactured, and then recruited 11 experienced jazz pianists to play it inside the scanner. They watched their fingers through strategically placed mirrors during 10-minute music stretches.


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