The Musical Brain

Cognitive benefits of being a musician

Author Kevin Pearson explores why learning to play an instrument can make a significant difference to the musician’s brain. 

Musicians are truly special in the sense that they need skills that few others do. Because musicians need acute hearing, well-developed senses of pitch, rhythm, dynamics and timing as well as great control of small and large muscles that non-musicians rarely use (“small-muscle athletes” as Frank Wilson described it in his book Tone Deaf and All Thumbs) musicians develop neurological and morphological changes that can be beneficial not only when playing their instrument or listening to music, but also in other aspects of everyday life.

The bridge that connect the two hemispheres, the corpus callosum, has been shown to be larger and thicker in musicians, indicating better communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. Musicians has also been shown to have a larger cerebellar volume. Cerebellum (“little brain”) is, among other things, involved in real-time movement correction, such as coordination, precision and accurate timing, all important when playing an instrument. Musicians have better synchronization skills and sensitivity to changes in timing.

The somatosensory cortex that a pianist typically has is larger in volume than that of a non-musician. This part of the brain is concerned with touch, temperature, pressure, and (probably most important for musicians) information about limb position (i.e. proprioception).

Heschl’s gyrus (a part of the primary auditory cortex) and the planum temporal (a structure involved in the understanding of language and music) are also larger in musicians. Interestingly, the size is dependent on expertise. The part of the motor cortex (the structure in the brain that initiate movements) that is concerned with hand movements also tends to have a larger volume among musicians.

Musicians are (not-surprisingly) faster in detecting harmonies, rhythmic, or melodic incongruities as well as the location of a sound. They display a dominance within the left temporal gyrus, while non-musicians show a right dominance when listening to music and detecting pitch.

The left hemisphere is often the dominant one (especially in right handed people) and is then more concerned with the rudimentary aspects of language, such as grammar and the meaning of words. The right hemisphere is often more concerned with nonverbal visual experiences, body language, and intonation.

These observations, then, indicate a tendency of a higher degree of analysis of music among musicians. If we would compare it to language, non-musicians understand the visual and nonverbal cues people give away when they talk, while the musician also understands the most relevant information; the words.

Music training has been shown to limit the negative effects of background noise while reading as well as enhance processing in the domains of speech and language. Musicians have a greater ability to subtract the relevant elements of sounds and to pick out sound objects from a complex soundscape, enhancing the relevant information and reducing the irrelevant. Thus, you can compare music training to an equalizer which only enhances the frequency you want instead of (like the volume knob), increasing volume overall. This provides a strong argument for putting more money into music education in schools, and preferably from the earliest age, because the earlier the onset of musical training, the better the effect.

Musicians have better long-term, verbal, auditory and working (not the same as the so called “muscle memory”) memory as well as a better vocabulary. This suggests that musicians have an advantage in everyday speak and can possibly also find it easier to learn a foreign language well.

Music training has even been shown to improve spatial-temporal recognition and reasoning, providing another great argument for increasing music education in public schools.

Orchestral musicians do not demonstrate age-related volume reductions in the brain, which are otherwise common among the elderly. This is all very logical. There is a concept in neuroscience called ”use it or lose it”, the same concept as when you exercise. If a muscle is used it will grow, but if not it will be degraded (atrophy). The same goes for the brain. Because musicians use most of their brain (the visual part when reading scores, the motor cortex when physically playing their instruments, their sensory cortex for proprioception as well as to feel when they touch the instrument and, of course, their auditory cortex when they listen to the music) it will not atrophy as it usually does when people reach an old age.

This is one reason for staying active even when you reach an old age, and why it’s a horrible idea to put the elderly in the cold, non-stimulating environment of most retirement homes, where their senses don’t get all the stimuli they need to stay active. Norman Doidge has written a great book about this concept called neuroplasticity and how the brain changes itself in response to the environment.

It is of course impossible to clump all musicians together as a group. And the neurological changes occurring in a conductor will be different from those in a pianist or a drummer. But the science clearly indicates that playing music in some way can have great neurological benefit, even when not performing.

Author Kevin Pearson is a medical student as well as a pianist and composer currently living in Helsingborg, Sweden.

Reference and Further Reading:

Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran. Music training for the development of auditory skills. [Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11, 599-605, August 2010]

William J. Dawson. How and why musicians are different from nonmusicians: a bibliographic review. [Med Probl Perform Art. 2011 Jun;26(2):65-78.]

Jourdain, Robert. Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination
An introduction in the relationship between music and neuroscience.

Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself
A great book about neuroplasticity and how activities like music, dancing and learning a new language can benefit you in the long term.

Kandel, Eric et al.  Principles of Neural Science
If there is something you want to know about neuroscience, this is the book for you. It covers all the principals you need to know. Whether you’re a layman or a medical professional you will find what you need in this book.

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia.
The neurologist and author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks brings us cases of people with “musical misalignments”, such as the man who became a pianist after being struck by lightning and the man that is unable to memorize anything but music for more than seven seconds.

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