Ever wonder how musicians manage to play in unison? Credit their brain waves: they synchronize before and while musicians play a composition, according to new research.
German scientists report in BMC Neuroscience that they measured the brain waves of eight pairs of guitarists using electroencephalography (EEG) while they played a modern jazz piece called "Fusion #1" (by Alexander Buck). The researchers found that the guitarists' brain waves were aligned most during three pivotal times: when they were syncing up with a metronome, when they began playing the piece and at points during the composition that demanded the most synchrony.

The synchrony was most prominent in the frontal and central parts of the brain that regulate motor function. "Whenever synchrony of behavior was high, synchrony of brain waves were also high," Ulman Lindenberger, a director the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, tells ScientificAmerican.com. But, "we can't assign a causal role to that synchronizing."

While brain synchrony during a duet seems like a given, it's a mystery how it happens, says Lindenberger, a psychologist. "One could speculate that this may be related to mirror neurons, the capacity of primates and humans to imagine the action of the other person while performing actions yourself," he says. "The mirror neuron system could be active during synchronized guitar playing."

Lindenberger says that inter-brain synchrony may also help explain humans' ability to engage in a host of other activities and behaviors that involve couples or teams, such as dancing, boxing, tennis and mother–child bonding. "People have an extraordinary capacity to synchronize their actions," he says. "When two people concentrate on the same thing, gestures and head movements are highly coordinated and supported by brain synchronicity. We think what we are getting through music has wider implications and social bonding behaviors are part of those wider implications."

Image of guitar duet by phoosh via Flickr