The Origins of Musical Creativity

ThoughtsAt a fundraiser for my friends’ animal rescue program, Walter Rescue, I had the opportunity to meet many new people. One person in particular had some very interesting things to say about music.

Kristen Allison is a speech pathologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where, among other things, she helps children who have had traumatic brain injuries learn to speak again. And fascinatingly, music has a role in the process.

Kristen explained that speech is handled by a particular portion of the brain. If that area of the brain is destroyed or injured, our ability to speak is debilitated. Another part of the brain must be taught how to perform speech functions so that we can speak again. Part of her job is to teach children to use other parts of their brains to handle speech.

Kristen said that there are increasingly more studies that show that the brain activity for speech and the brain activity musical performance are very similar. They, however, have one very convenient difference: the speech and musical performance cause brain activity in different areas of the brain. So she posed this question: “What if we taught the musical performance part of the brain to perform speech functions?” First, we need to understand what’s happening in the brain when we perform music and pinpoint which area of the brain helps us play music.

That’s exactly what Dr. Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins has been studying. Dr. Limb is an Associate Professor of Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery, and faculty at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Yes, he is both an accomplished surgeon and researcher as well as a musician. Dr. Limb is curious about the origins of musical creativity. What parts of our brain control it? Here is a fascinating video of Dr. Limb speaking about his studies:

Although his studies are in their infancy, Dr. Limb has discovered that improvised music and memorized music use different areas of the brain. Especially fascinating was the discovery that improvisation triggered brain activity that is similar to the brain activity we use when we speak.

That concept confirms what musicians have been saying for centuries. Music is a language. Musicians communicate with notes rather than words, but it is a language nonetheless. Dr. Limb hopes that his studies will pinpoint the neurological origins for the language of music.

Dr. Limb’s studies bring speech pathologists like Kristen closer to understanding how to re-purpose the musical part of the brain to help recover lost speech functions. Once researchers like Dr. Limb find out which part of the brain is conversing with the language music, it’s just a matter of teaching it a new language: speech.

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit

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