Cortical regions involved in the generation of musical structures during improvisation in pianists

Sara L. Bengtsson, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Fredrik Ullén

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

145 Citations (Scopus)


Studies on simple pseudorandom motor and cognitive tasks have shown that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and rostral premotor areas are involved in free response selection. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate whether these brain regions are also involved in free generation of responses in a more complex creative behavior: musical improvisation. Eleven professional pianists participated in the study. In one condition, Improvise, the pianist improvised on the basis of a visually displayed melody. In the control condition, Reproduce, the participant reproduced his previous improvisation from memory. Participants were able to reproduce their improvisations with a high level of accuracy, and the contrast Improvise versus Reproduce was thus essentially matched in terms of motor output and sensory feedback. However, the Improvise condition required storage in memory of the improvisation. We therefore also included a condition FreeImp, where the pianist improvised but was instructed not to memorize his performance. To locate brain regions involved in musical creation, we investigated the activations in the Improvise-Reproduce contrast that were also present in FreeImp contrasted with a baseline rest condition. Activated brain regions included the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the presupplementary motor area, the rostral portion of the dorsal premotor cortex, and the left posterior part of the superior temporal gyrus. We suggest that these regions are part of a network involved in musical creation, and discuss their possible functional roles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)830-842
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2007

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