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Music Performance Links Musicians’ Brain Activity

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You’re sitting around the campfire on a breezy autumn night, surrounded by familiar faces. Someone just passed you a djembe drum they’ve turned into a bong. Two of your more musically-inclined friends take out their acoustic guitars and begin jamming out a high-energy folk song they’d been working on, and you don’t know if it’s the party favors or what, but those guys look like they’re on the same wavelength. Don’t worry, it’s not just the drugs. Their brains actually are more attuned to one another.

Psychologists with the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin have demonstrated a mental collaboration between guitarists playing a duet, even when the notes being played are different. The synchronized brain activity involved in a guitarists’ duet was discovered in 2009, and it was assumed to be similar only because they were experiencing the same stimuli and performing the same movements. This new data highlights the limitations on that earlier assumption.

To get their results, the scientists attached 64 electrodes all over the heads of 32 experienced guitar players assigned to 16 duet pairs. The performance piece was a rondo sequence from the “Sonata in G major” by Christian Gottlieb Scheidler — that Guitar Hero favorite — which they had to play 60 times. One was given the role of leader, while the other followed along, and the two were to play in different voices.

Johanna Sänger, first author of the study, explains, “In the player taking the lead, synchronization of brain waves measured at a single electrode was stronger, and already present before the duet started to play.” Delta waves, located below 4Hz on the frequency range, were particularly affected, possibly a reflection of the guitarist’s mere decisions rather than solely his actions. When the two musicians actively coordinated their playing, at the beginning of a sequence perhaps, the frontal and central electrodes made associations not just in a single player’s head, but between the brains of both players, connecting areas of the brain associated with social cognition and music production. It’s all rather amazing, isn’t it?

Sänger goes on to say it may occur during activities beyond music. “We assume that different’ people’s brain waves also synchronize when people mutually coordinate their actions in other ways, such as during sport, or when they communicate with one another.”

Does that work for group prayer as well? What about when people are doing the wave? Does the competitive factor mean it doesn’t happen during a hot dog eating contest? These are burning questions, America, and while we think about them, connect your eyes to this amazing single-guitar duet.

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