The Impact of Playing Music on the Brain
While listening to music is beneficial, playing it can have even more positive effects. In this second article in our Brain and Music series, we look at studies that demonstrate benefits of playing music on concentration, memory, and language learning, among others. The good news is that there is no age to reap the benefits.
We are all fascinated to see a great pianist playing a concerto with a symphony orchestra or a rock guitarist launching into a virtuoso solo where the notes fly by. Those who have taken music lessons in their lives can attest to the effort and discipline it takes to get there. What happens in the brain when you play music? Are there additional benefits compared to just listening to it? This is what we will explore in this second article on the brain and music.
Many researchers in the field of neuroscience argue that musical performance is one of the most complex and cognitively demanding challenges that the human mind can undertake. This is no mean feat. Unlike other tasks that require tactile feedback, musical performance requires synchronization of multiple brain regions, in addition to constant motor, auditory and sensory control to maintain the right notes in performance. You have to read the notation, transform it into motor commands, add a musical intention, listen to what it sounds like, adjust your aim, anticipate the next notes, all this in a sustained way for hours. That’s quite an exercise for the brain!
The Musician’s Brain
Let’s take a pianist sitting comfortably in front of his score. The first step is to read the first notes before performing the piece. In fact, what he sees are symbols – notes on a staff – which he has to associate with sounds and finger placement to generate the note on the instrument. The visual signal starts in the eyes and is transformed into an electrical signal that travels along the optic nerve to the back of the brain in an area of the occipital lobe known as the visual cortex. Connections from the visual cortex then go to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe and to the motor cortex in the parietal lobe just above.
This triangle of three cortical regions acts in a continuous and coordinated loop. But that’s not all. A good musician anticipates notes that have not yet been played in order to ensure good phrasing of the melody and adequate dynamics throughout the performance. He also needs to coordinate his hands’ movement to ensure a good rhythm. If the musician wants to accentuate the dynamics of a single note within a passage, to play it louder or faster, he must open another line of direct communication, in real time, between the ear and the motor cortex that controls the finger involved.
Finally, it is necessary to add an emotional expression, the one requested by the composer, and the performer’s grain of salt, which remains the pinnacle of interpretation. The whole limbic system then intervenes along the electrical signal between the cortex, the limbs and the fingers of the artist.
The Plasticity of a Musician’s Brain
Becoming a musician involves years of practice and discipline. Does this feat of strength repeated for hours every day for years have a long-term impact on the brain? Numerous imaging studies have compared the brains of beginners with those of professional musicians, and other work has tracked changes in musicians. First observation: music changes the brain. Sustained musical practice induces transformations in the very structures of the brain, according to a principle known as plasticity. The auditory and motor cortices of apprentices acquire new connections in their grey matter, a region with functional neurons. The same applies to other peripheral regions including the premotor cortex and the cerebellum, the control centre for movement coordination.
Researchers even found changes in white matter, the neurons that connect the different regions of the brain. Practising music increases the nerve fibres in the corpus callosum, the main highway connecting the two hemispheres of the brain. The auditory and motor cortexes are, of course, essential to music-making, but what is most interesting is that peripheral regions are involved. We even have very advanced musicians who have intense connectivity between motor and sensory regions outside of musical activity.
The Benefits of Playing Music
Giving an instrument and music lessons are among the best gifts you can give your children. There is every reason to believe that teaching children to play music improves their auditory abilities, motor coordination and perception of rhythm. But recent studies go further and find transfers of competence in more distant skills, such as verbal intelligence, and even improved academic performance. But the question on every parent’s lips is when to start their child’s musical education.
Scientists refer to a sensitive period, a time in brain development when experiences have a powerful influence on the malleability of neural circuitry. For hearing in general, the auditory cortex’s plasticity is at its maximum during the first three to four years of life, which is why it is important to stimulate the newborn’s hearing. The optimal plasticity for learning one’s first language is between the ages of one and five. For second language learning, for example, the period is from birth to age 12 or 13. That said, the best age to learn music is determined by the sensitive period of plasticity. Without going into detail, the sensitive periods of the regions responsible for the perception and performance of music vary. In addition, motivation and environment also play a role. One thing is certain: learning an instrument develops language skills, attention and flexibility in cognitive tasks. The younger you learn, the more likely you are to maximize your abilities.
Learning Music Appears to Improve Listening Skills
It goes without saying that playing music regularly improves auditory perception. Eight-year-olds who receive six months of musical training are able to distinguish small changes of frequency in a note, which is not the case for those who are not trained. Adult musicians can recognize and distinguish conversations in noise.
In fact, a scene from Canadian filmmaker François Girard‘s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould has become famous: the famous pianist Glenn Gould is seen eating in a fast-food restaurant frequented mostly by truckers. The environment is very noisy. The pleasure Gould derives from this is to isolate one by one the conversations of all the guests present. He even has fun creating a polyphony by mixing the discussions, as Bach would have done with notes. Psychiatrist Peter Oswald was the first, in 1996, to make a post-mortem diagnosis of the Canadian pianist’s disorder. He claims that he had all the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. His giftedness in acute polyphonic perception, however, is not necessarily related to this syndrome. In fact, I know several musicians who have this ability without being autistic.