I would argue that it’s impossible to find someone who isn’t moved by a particular song or piece of music. Like storytelling, making music is a universal human trait, shared across all cultures for many thousands of years. It has a unique effect on the brain, inducing powerful emotional responses. A new study in PLOS ONE confirms that music, if we make it our profession, actually rewires the circuitry of our brains.
Music, indubitably, is a very primal form of communication that activates specific centers of our brain: those most associated with reward, planning, motivation and emotion. It is known that learning how to play a musical instrument can alter the brain: a study in 2009 demonstrated that prolonged practice increased the size of the centers of the brain responsible for hearing and dexterity. Musicians are also known for being more proficient at identifying pitch, and they are better than most at picking out speech from considerably loud background noise. Somewhat remarkably, they even have an enhanced ability to detect emotional cues in conversations.
Previous research indicates that the tissue that connects the left and right hemispheres of our brains is larger in musicians. Could it be possible that music has the power, therefore, to improve the communication between the two hemispheres?
To see if musicians really did have an improved hemispheric connection over non-musicians, a new study spearheaded by researchers at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland used fMRI scanners to look at the brains of two groups of people: the members of the first were all professional, practising musicians with degrees in music; the second were people who had have never professionally played a musical instrument.
Once inside in the fMRI scanners, the subjects were subjected to three very different pieces of music: classical Stravinsky, Argentinian tango and progressive rock. The researchers were looking for flares in neurological activity in both hemispheres of the brain; as suspected, the patterns of activity in the musicians’ left and right hemispheres was far more symmetrical than that of non-musicians.
The group of musicians included keyboard players, cellists, violinists, bassoonists and trombone players. Intriguingly, the most symmetrical neurological display of the study was observed in the brains of the keyboard players. The researchers suggest that the kinematic symmetry – the symmetry of a musician’s physical movements as they play their instrument of choice – is directly linked to the level of neurological symmetry they have. “Keyboard players have a more mirrored use of both hands and fingers when playing,” Iballa Burunat, the lead author of the study, told New Scientist; therefore, they are more likely to have synaptic symmetry than those playing stringed instruments.
As this study only tested the effect that listening to music, not actually playing it, had on the brain, these results suggest that practising musicians genuinely have a rewired brain, one that communicates more effectively than most even after they’ve put down their instruments.
[H/T: New Scientist]