Subtleties in Brains of Jazz Pianists and Classical Pianists Explored

By Meenu Johnkutty ‘21

Figure 1. Researchers found differences between the brain functioning of jazz pianists and that of classical pianists.

While a number of the beneficial effects of music are well-known, recent research suggest that music not only increases brain plasticity but also plays a robust role in sharpening mental skills and improving speech recognition. Since reading music activates multiple areas of the brain, it is no surprise that the brains of professional musicians are quite different than those of their nonmusical counterparts. However, a new study has revealed that differences in brain structure go beyond those between non-musicians and musicians: there are also distinctions in the brain structures of musicians who specialize in different genres of music. According to a study recently published in NeuroImage, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences found differences in the specific processes that occur in the brains of jazz pianists and classical pianists playing the same sheet music.

In the experimental part of the study, the researchers selected 30 professional pianists –15 jazz pianists and 15 classical pianists. The pianists were asked to use a muted piano to replicate a chord progression that was riddled with mistakes and irregularities; their EEG signals were recorded via sensors that were attached to their heads.

Upon analyzing the data, the researchers found differences in the recordings of both groups in terms of planning and flexibility. When asked to play a harmonically unexpected chord, the jazz pianists were able to quickly plan for that chord and thereby continue with the performance. However, the classical pianists were more adept at playing chords with unusual fingering and made fewer mistakes while imitating the chords displayed on a screen.

The subtleties that differentiate the brain functioning of jazz pianists and that of classical pianists can be traced back to the respective differences in jazz and classical music.  While classical music demands perfection and attention to fine details, jazz music requires flexibility. Thus, this study demonstrates that in order to fully understand music’s effect on the brain, differences in genre must also be taken into consideration.


  1. R. Bianco, et. al., Musical genre-dependent behavioural and EEG signatures of action planning. A comparison between classical and jazz pianists. ScienceDirect 169, 383-394 (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.12.058.
  2. Image retrieved from:

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