Musician’s brains have been drawing a lot of interest in the world of science lately, and the trend is not about to stop. And these efforts do not disappoint, because the findings are proving to be more interesting with every new study.

So interesting, in fact, that musician’s themselves have become interested in learning how their brains work when they are playing or listening to music. One of them is Jennifer Koh, whose primary motivation for gaining knowledge about the musician’s brain came about following an unfortunate event.

Koh Jennifer
Violinist Jennifer Koh used her visit to Duke to learn more about brain function.

Until just a few years ago, violinist Jennifer Koh had no particular interest in the inner workings of the brain.

But then she suffered a concussion resulting in speech and memory loss. She couldn’t practice her violin for months; when she picked up the instrument again, she could play for no more than 20 minutes at a time. Via Duke University

Jennifer now wanted to learn as much as she could about the brain. She did a lot of her own research and even began to pester her friend in the medical fields. So determined was she, that she recently underwent a functional MRI scan in the hopes that it might explain how a professional musician’s brains worked.

Koh’s fMRI this week was an unexpected offshoot of a visit to campus in January as an artist-in-residence sponsored by Duke Performances, during which time she gave a recital at Baldwin Auditorium and participated in some classes. One was “Music and the Brain,” which explores the intersection of music and neuroscience and is taught jointly by professors Scott Lindroth of the music department and Tobias Overath from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. Via Duke University

Tobias Overath was the ideal researcher for the study, because he too has a history in music. After playing violin for 6 years, he took up the viola, which he played for many years and still plays today. It was while taking an undergraduate in musicology that he discovered his interest in the brain chemistry of how human beings perceive music. It surpassed his interest in musical composition and theory and therefore switched to neuroscience.

For Overath, the chance to study the working brain of a professional musician of Koh’s caliber was a rare opportunity, and his students will benefit as well. He and Lindroth will discuss the results derived from Koh’s scan in class.

“It certainly plays into the course content,” said Lindroth, a composer. “We’ll have a whole class on the ways the brain is engaged with the physical and auditory dimensions of musical performance. It’s especially wonderful that our students will have a personal connection to Jennifer from her visit to our class earlier in the semester.” Via Duke University

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

During the study, Jennifer was asked to imagine that she was playing a series of classical works by Bach and Paganini for solo violin. She was also asked to listen to the pieces and again asked to read their musical scores. The MRI scan allowed Overath to study how Jennifer’s brain reacted during each activity.

So what did they discover?

The results, he said afterwards, showed a unique activation pattern for when she was listening, reading, and imagining playing music. However, there were also some common traits: For example, brain areas responsible for planning movements were active in all three tasks, even though Koh never lifted a finger.

“The musician’s brain is exquisitely sensitive to all aspects of music, be it listening, reading or imagining playing music,” Overath said. “Therefore, you engage a whole range of areas of your brain – it’s quite literally a whole body experience. From a cognitive point of view, but also physically, it’s incredibly strenuous.” Via Duke University

Exploring Music's Impact on the Brain

Another interesting study involved two musicians – Essi Wuorela and Chydenius, who agreed to have their brains studied as they performed to a sold-out concert hall. Even more interesting was the fact that a screen behind them would display a feed of their brain activity. During the performance, they wore EEG headgear that looked like swimming caps that had cables attached to them right before the performance.

brain research
Practising music improves attentiveness, cognitive control, memory and language skills. Musicians Jussi Chydenius and Essi Wuorela let researchers test their brains while they were performing in a concert.

In addition to heart rate, the audience will see in real time which brain areas are activated at which times, and how much the brain generates relaxing alpha waves in relation to beta waves that indicate a higher level of alertness or stress. Via University of Helsinki

Here’s a video of the research concert:

Musicians’ brains on display | University of Helsinki

Featured Image: Image Credit

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