Musical creativity under the neuroscience microscope

Music and the brain, what’s their relationship? A neuropsychologist, a neurologist and a neurobiologist dissected creativity and compared it with a composer’s experience. An ideal opportunity to debunk a few misconceptions.

"I was conducting rehearsals in Cologne and was trying to find a solution for the orchestra that I believed was out of balance," says the composer Philippe Manoury about his latest piece. "I tried to adjust the tones, rethink the nuances. It wasn’t good enough. That night, I woke up at 4am with a recurrent thought in my head: you must remove the horns, because they command too much attention in the orchestral palette. The next day, I implemented during rehearsals and it worked out like a charm. "

What Philippe Manoury, "Creativity, music and the brain" Conference Grand Témoin, explains in this event held on Saturday, June 4, 2016, is the insight , a word used by cognitive psychologist to describe this switched on little lightbulb of a good idea. The one you’ve certainly invoked in trivial situations trying to get rid of a problem. The one you’ve contemplated while thinking of Malevitch’s White on White, A la Fontaine by Marcel Duchamp or Tristan's cord with Wagner, realizing what good idea that was. It's this little light that switches on just at the right time. And this is what’s called creativity, making "ready-made" from a urinal or turning a hysterical mother-in-law into The Queen of the Night: 

To illustrate the concept of insight in a conference setting “Music and the brain", Hervé Platel chose the extract from the biopic "Amadeus" by Milos Forman    me:"

Thus, after a first edition of conferences devoted to the relationship between music and neuroscience, which covered memory, learning and health, but also a day devoted to musical emotion, the cycle "Music and the Brain" looked at creativity. Three convergent points of view nurtured the debate. They were brought forward by Hervé Platel, Professor of neuropsychology at the University of Caen, Catherine Thomas-Antérion, doctor in neurology and researcher at the Université Lyon 2, and that of Jean- Pierre Changeux, renowned neurobiologist, French neuroscience pioneer and professor at the Collège de France. The composer Philippe Manoury, a keen neuroscience enthusiast and book co-signer of Les neurones enchantés with Pierre Boulez and Jean-Pierre Changeux, willingly participated and attested of his own experience and a creator.

"While psychiatric characteristics of creativity have long been an interest to researchers – artists’ personalities and temperaments have given rise to innumerable publications, it’s only very recently that neuropsychology has shown a keen interest in how the brain crafts aesthetic perception of the world and artistic production" said Hervé Platel.

Le professeur de neuropsychologie Hervé Platel et le compositeur Philippe Manoury à l'occasion de la conférence "Musique et cerveau" à Radio France/ Photo : Suzana Kubik
Le professeur de neuropsychologie Hervé Platel et le compositeur Philippe Manoury à l'occasion de la conférence "Musique et cerveau" à Radio France/ Photo : Suzana Kubik

During this conference, the three speakers tackled many question, from psycho-cognitive aspects of creativity to neurological diseases and their impact on artists’ and others creativity and the functioning of the composer's brain. Doing so, they took the opportunity to wipe out a few misconceptions. What do your reckon creativity is and where does it come from?

Fallen from sky? Leave miracles where they belong. 


According to the three speakers, this idea of a miraculous and god-given creativity is cheesy and passe. If you believe in Santa, then go on believing. For the others, let’s quickly get on the same page.

Jean-Pierre Changeux is adamant, "There is nothing miraculous about a work of art. It's a production, a construction, an artifice of the human brain.” It’s a communication medium of the artist's emotional states, knowledge, and experience. It’s a sheer representation of his inner world that conveys an aesthetic message. According to Jean-Pierre Changeux, there is a complex and hyper-connected neuron and synapse network behind each artistic production generation processes. Their functioning, and therefore , their creative capacities, were shaped throughout evolution and under the constraint of genes. Creativity is not only restrained to the artistic field. Insofar as it is allows the production of a new and original idea, relevant to context, it is the very principle of man's adaptation to his ever-changing environment. In other words, thank the little lightbulb in your head: without it, we would still be primates.

2. Decades spent on school benches? The myth of exceptional intelligence.


Rest assured, you don’t need to be exceptionally intelligent to be creative, neither does your diploma-packed resume guarantee ever expanding creativity. Quite the opposite, according to Hervé Platel. "Creativity is not necessarily linked to intelligence, and there is no specific intelligence to creativity. The results of IQ tests among some creatives do not necessarily show very high scores. The level of education does not necessarily follow the path to creativity. Some even show that a person with a BAC + 3 level can be more creative than those who have done very advanced studies" As if a very high level of studies would somehow close the doors that lead to imagination.

This argument is backed by Catherine Thomas-Antérion concerning patients who developed an artistic activity following a neurological disease: "Among my patients, I was able to monitor a young hairdresser and a carpenter after they had a stroke. Following their illness, and although they had never shown signs of creativity before, they began to make works of art. Due to their profession, they most likely had a sensitivity to aesthetics, but none of them had done long studies or had any prior artists initiation before."

3. A family affair? 


The sons and daughters of... do not win every time, despite dynasties of famous musicians – such as the Bach family, one of the most famous and the most abundant musical families. We could think that behind this production of exceptional originality and quality, there is necessarily a hereditary aspect to it all. "Absolutely not" says Jean-Pierre Changeux. "These are completely old-fashioned misconceptions. Creativity is the result of an extremely complex combination of genetic factors. There is certainly a predisposition, but there is no specific gene responsible for creativity, for maths or loyalty.”

4. The genie in the bottle? The purple haze?


"This is a false belief" says Catherine Thomas-Antérion. "Opiates are on the contrary much more toxic because they are responsible for the neurological network deterioration and could even be the trigger for certain neurodegenerative diseases. Particularly because they create a state of dependence with very serious consequences. The example of painter Willem de Kooning, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at the age of 80, is an example. Some researchers believe that his addiction to the toxins triggered the disease, and once weaned, the artist returned to painting. At the end of his life, even when he was sick, he produced more than 250 canvases in completely different styles, paintings that some specialists rank among the best of his career. "
Does an artist not need to be in a state of increased, stimulated creativity, or in a state of release to find inspiration? The artist’s own words: “It’s quite the opposite," says Philippe Manoury. "The most creative moment for me is when I'm most inside the subject, not the moment of release. The moment when the subject gives me an idea of what’s next. It's the opposite of letting go. It is a retreat, but with intense concentration. I see my scores as a landscape, observing the elements, the contours, and act of getting into a subject unblocks an idea. "

5. From the Left brain?

Another idea to banish. It has long been thought that the left hemisphere of the brain analyses and organizes, and the right brain creates and imagines. Today, scientists emphasize the multiplicity of the circuits involved in creativity that communicate constantly and very dynamically, from one hemisphere to another.

_"The idea that the right hemisphere is the only one responsible for creativity is now completely outdated. Artistic creativity is a very complex and dynamic dialogue between cognitive and emotional networks, in accordance with the environment "explains Hervé Platel. "It involves sensorimotor, perceptual functions, memory and executive functions. In addition, different regions of the brain are mobilized during different stages of the creative process, which we can now observe through neuroimaging."_ A point of view supported by Catherine Thomas-Antérion, who observed the effects of neurological diseases on creativity in her research, both among famous artists, and among anonymous people. An artist’s change in style or language, or on the contrary a sudden artistic surge in the people who had never been creative, both can come from a neuronal circuit reorganization following a disease in a certain area. Which is possible because in the process of creation multiple regions of the brain are mobilized in a complementary manner. "The extraordinary plasticity of the brain makes it possible to reorganize neural networks following deterioration. Other circuits can light up as to support dysfunctional ones affected by the disease, they release associations and allow the patient to maintain cerebral activity. Numerous examples of famous artists, painters, writers, but also musicians, have shown that their creative activity has continued even once diagnosed with a brain disease. But not without a few modifications: in style, language, palette, and in recurring themes. Among musicians, the most famous example is that of Maurice Ravel, whose Bolero, according to some researchers, is the consequence of a modification related to the functioning of neural networks following a neurodegenerative disease, which the composer suffered during from the last years of his life. "

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