We’ve already established that you can expect your brain to change in both structure and function when you engage in musical activity. This is particularly the case when you learn to play a musical instrument as it demands a high level of brain activity compared to other daily activities.

For instance, when playing a piano piece, the part of your brain responsible for controlling finger movements is fully engaged. So just like working out in the gym will make your muscles bigger, playing that piano piece is a workout for that part of the brain, so it ultimately gets bigger too.

synapse in brain
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Similarly, the parts of your brain responsible for identifying pitch and sound are actively engaged when listening to or playing music. As a result, musicians’ brains become more responsive over time and have even been observed to respond faster and more strongly to sound than the brains of non-musicians.

Today we look at another interesting finding that scientists have discovered about musicians’ brains.

Musicians’ brains respond more symmetrically to the music they listen to. And the size of the effect depends on which instrument they play. Via New Scientist

Previous research has shown that the strip of tissue connecting the right and left sides of the brain (corpus callosum) is larger in musicians. Drawing from this, researchers sought to find out whether the two halves of the brain communicate better in musicians compared to non-musicians.

power of the brain
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

To find out, Iballa Burunat at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland and her colleagues used an fMRI scanner to look at the brains of 18 musicians and 18 people who have never played professionally. The professional musicians – all of whom had a degree in music – included cellists, violinists, keyboardists and bassoon and trombone players.

While they were in the scanner, all of the participants were played three different pieces of music – prog rock, an Argentinian tango and some Stravinsky. Burunat recorded how their brains responded to the music, and used software to compare the activity of the left and right hemispheres of each person’s brain. Via New Scientist

The researchers noticed that as the musicians listened to music, their brains seemed to fire more symmetrically than those of non-musicians. In other words, the activity on the right side of the brain was a closer match to that on the left side in musicians.

Another interesting observation was that the type of instruments they musicians played also influenced the level of symmetry in the brain.

The brains of keyboard players seemed to respond more symmetrically than those of musicians who played string instruments. Burunat thinks that this is because the playing the keyboard requires a more symmetrical use of your hands.Via New Scientist

piano and bass players
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

When playing the piano, the activity in your hands and fingers tends to be somewhat matched. In contrast, when playing an instrument like the violin, your hands are performing completely different activities.

“Keyboard players have a more mirrored use of both hands and fingers when playing,” says Burunat. “Although playing a string instrument also requires fine motor skills and hand coordination, it enforces a strict asynchrony between left-hand and right-hand finger movements.”

“It is surprising that the effect is instrument-specific,” says Marcus Pearce at Queen Mary, University of London. “It’s one thing to see differences in brain activity when they’re playing their instruments, but they’re just listening,” he says. “The perception of music is changed with musical training.” Via New Scientist

Image Courtesy of Pixabay

The researchers’ findings suggest that the two halves of musicians’ brain are more in sync. Does that mean musicians might be at an advantage when playing video games?

The team think the two halves of a musician’s brain may be better at communicating than those of a non-musician. But they don’t know if this enhanced connection will give musicians an upper hand when it comes to other skills that involve using two hands, such as typing. Or even whether other people who use both hands almost equally would show similar brain patterns. Via New Scientist

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Playing musical instruments in the MRI - the brain on music

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