Musical Interludes – Musicians and Neuroplasticity

As a musician I am interested in the idea that my brain might be different because of the music I study. This opinion article was published in 2002 (1) and I thought it would be interesting to share.

Neuroplasticity (definition) is when the function of different parts of the brain alter. New neural connections can be made allowing the brain to recover after disease or injury. It also means that we can adjust to new situations and experiences. This is hard to study in animals and even in humans. Since:

Performing music at a professional level is arguably among the most complex of human accomplishments. A pianist, for example, has to bimanually co-ordinate the production of up to 1,800 notes per minute. Music, as a sensory stimulus, is highly complex and structured in several dimensions, so it extends beyond any of the stimuli that have been used in animal research. Moreover, making music requires the integration of sensory and motor information, and precise monitoring of performance. Finally, the study of musicians might allow us to tease apart the effects of musical training or experience from those of genetic predisposition.


So, the musician’s brain might constitute a perfect model in which to study neuroplasticity in the auditory and motor domains.

So how are musicians’ brains different to non-musicians?

From the auditory perspective, musicians have a greater brain response to music played in their instrument. For example, pianists had a 25% greater response to piano tones than non players. When we hear sounds that are not correct, our brains produce something called a mismatch negativity which showed that musicians were more sensitive to changes in rhythm and tones. They responded to a 20 ms change in rhythm, whereas non-musicians did not respond until the change was 50 ms. They were also more responsive to changes in tone. Conductors, who need to be able to concentrate on one instrument at time, were more able at separating adjacent sound sources.

These findings indicate that, after years of musical training, neuronal populations in the auditory cortex might be shaped such that they automatically detect subtle changes in auditory stimulus sequences with simple or higher-order regularities. The parameters that are needed for the acquisition of these skills are unknown, but probably involve initial attentive processing of the stimuli.

There are also some structure differences in the brains of musicians, but it is not clear whether these changes are related directly to musical ability. For example:

Asymmetry of the planum temporale has been suggested as a marker of cerebral dominance, because its direction and size correlate with handedness. In two independent samples, musicians with absolute pitch (AP) had a more pronounced leftward planum temporale asymmetry than did musicians with relative pitch (RP) or non-musician controls; another study found no significant difference in planum temporale volume between musicians with AP and those with RP. However, when compared with a large sample of right-handed non-musician controls, musicians with AP again showed a larger left planum temporale.

Musicians also have to use very precise motor skills; with different hands having different tasks. For example, string players, who use their left hand for fingering, have a larger cortical representation for their fingers on their left hand. This is not seen for the right hand. The younger the musician started playing the more pronounced the cortical reorganization.

As mentioned earlier musicians are typically learning new pieces to play. Neuroimaging studies have shown:

that motor learning occurs in several phases: a fast initial phase of performance gains is followed by a period of consolidation that lasts for several hours. This is succeeded by a slow learning phase that occurs during continued practice and leads to gradual increases in performance

Interestingly, on learning a novel tapping task, professional pianists showed a brain response suggesting that they entered their slow learning stage within minutes of being given the new task as opposed to months for non-musicians. Overall pianists had a smaller neural response than non musicians suggesting that they were more efficient in controlling movement.

Studies on neuroplasticity in musicians will not only lead to better understanding in how the brain may change function as new skills are learned but also help understand illness better. In particular, musicians may suffer from loss of fine motor control (musician’s cramp/focal dystonia). This has been shown to be caused by the fact that the brain fuses the response to different fingers. That is, if I’ve understood this correctly, the brain is unable to differentiate between the different fingers.

My route to this article went via Cognitive Daily who linked to this post at Mindblog, which lead me to this article “The musician’s brain as a model of neuroplasticity


(1) Thomas F. Münte, Eckart Altenmüller and Lutz Jäncke THE MUSICIAN’S BRAIN AS A MODEL OF NEUROPLASTICITY Nature Reviews Neuroscience 3, 473-478 (2002)