The Neural Origins of Music Creativity

The musical creativity a person has is determined by brain structures responsible for movement control, hearing, and emotion.
— Oliver Sachs, Musicophilia 1

Recent neuroimaging studies show that individual differences in various traits ranging from perceptual and cognitive skills to personality features can be predicted to some degree from the structure of the brain. Musicianship entails a combination of years of intensive practice of specific auditory, motor and cognitive skills, as well as perhaps innate musical capability.2 How this combination of intensive training and innate skills is reflected in the structure and function of the brains of musicians is something that has intrigued cognitive neuroscientists, giving rise to a substantial amount of work in the field of cognitive neuroscience of music.

We already know that intensive music training produces many observable changes in the structure and function of the brain: the cortex in brain areas needed for playing a musical instrument becomes thicker, and brain functions related to the processing of sounds become heightened. As Oliver Sachs wrote in Musicophilia, “Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer or a mathematician - but they would recognize the brain of a professional musician without moment’s hesitation.”

But what about musical creativity? What kind of brains might composer geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven, or Prince have had? What kind of neural networks are needed to give rise to phenomenal pieces of music that are able to move people across generations, even centuries?

A study recently published in Scientific Reports sought to find out.3 To see how musical creativity might be reflected in brain structure, the study collected MRI images from over 200 young adults as well as information about how often the subjects improvised and composed music. Then, correlations were computed between the questionnaire data and measures of brain structure to expose links between creativity and specific brain structures.

The results have interesting implications. Firstly, they revealed that the amount of musically creative behaviors the participants reported to engage in correlated with the structure of regions associated with motor performance, sound processing as well as emotion. All of these are brain structures that are routinely reported to be different in musicians when compared to non-musicians. They reflect the requirements of musical performance and music training: good motor skills, a good ear, and skills for expressing and understanding the emotions conveyed by music.

…results suggest a link between musical improvisation and loosened control and self-monitoring.

Another intriguing finding in the study was the significant correlation between musical creativity and the activity of the brain regions associated with the so-called default mode network. The default mode network is a distributed set of frontal, temporal, parietal and cingulate regions that has previously been shown to be active when subjects are not engaged in any particular task (hence the name) and just let their mind wander. 

Many of us have probably experienced the creativity-boosting effects of the activity of the default mode network: the best solutions to a problem you have been working hard on, for hours, may pop into your mind only when you manage to let go of your focus and take a break to let your mind rest. This may also explain why many individuals working in creative fields make sure to keep a notebook on hand – it is very possible you won’t be at your desk or on a computer, but rather somewhere relaxing when the best ideas come to mind! This finding may also carry advice for individuals who wish to come up with more creative solutions in their work. In addition to hard work and focus, the mind needs rest to provide the best insight.

Previously, studies looking at brain function have also implicated some of the regions involved in the default mode network in musical improvisation (i.e. a high-speed composition). For instance, one of these areas, the medial prefrontal cortex, was reported in an earlier study to show heightened activity when professional jazz pianists improvised in comparison to when they simply replicated melodies or scales.4 Such results suggest a link between musical improvisation and loosened control and self-monitoring. This makes sense - after all, it is difficult to improvise if you cannot let go and be spontaneous!

All in all, the results of the study start to provide insights into the musically creative brain. It is tuned for good motor skills, fine-grained hearing, and enhanced emotion processing. Additionally, the musically creative brain is trained for letting go of control once a while to allow the weaker signals of creative insight to surface. Maybe an important addition should be made to the recipe of creative success: it’s not only about the combination of inspiration and perspiration, but also a pinch of procrastination is needed.




1. Sacks, O. (2007). Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  doi: 10.1056/NEJMbkrev59472

2. Kanai, R., & Rees, G. (2011). The structural basis of inter-individual differences in human behaviour and cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci, 12(4), 231–242. doi:10.1038/nrn3000

3. Bashwiner, D. M., Wertz, C. J., Flores, R. A., & Jung, R. E. (2016). Musical Creativity “Revealed” in Brain Structure: Interplay between Motor, Default Mode, and Limbic Networks. Scientific Reports, 6, 20482. doi:10.1038/srep20482

4. Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE, 3(2), e1679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679