Melodies on the Brain

Medically Reviewed by Jacqueline Brooks, MBBCH, MRCPsych
From the WebMD Archives

May 8, 2001 (Philadelphia) -- Musicians have a reputation for being 'different,' and new research presented here at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology will do nothing to dispel that notion: A study of the brains of professional keyboard players who began musical training before age 8 finds that they have more brain tissue in the areas of their brains that control movement than do similar nonmusicians.

The finding suggests that how the brain is used in early life may strongly influence how it develops, say Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the neuroimaging center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Schlaug and colleagues attempted to determine whether brain growth and development could be influenced by intensive activities such as musical training during childhood. He tells WebMD that the study grew out of his interest in the phenomenon of "perfect pitch" -- the rare ability that allows some people to immediately and accurately identify a musical note or sound frequency by hearing it only once.

"When I started out, perfect pitch was a unique ability that some musicians had and that I didn't have," Schlaug says. "I was a serious musician at some point in my life, so I thought it was interesting to see if there was a correlation in the brain."

Because professional musicians usually begin training early in life, they are ideal subjects for the study of how the brain adapts to environmental demands, "such as acquiring and performing complicated finger movements for a long period of time," he asserts.

The researchers recruited 15 men who were professional musicians and matched them with 15 nonmusical men of the same age. They used a type of brain imaging technique called magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to study differences in brain structure between the groups.

"This is a new method we use where we can actually test whether there are differences between musicians and nonmusicians across the whole brain," Schlaug tells WebMD.

The researchers found vast differences in the distribution of gray matter between the two groups, with musicians having more gray matter in areas of the brain related to movement than nonmusicians. The term "gray matter" refers to the major portion or body of the brain, where brains cells, or neurons, are found.

Although some people believe that elements of musical ability reside in the right side of the brain, the differences were found in both the left and the right sides.

"There's a lot of discussion about left [side of the brain] contributions to music, right [side] contributions to music -- it should be said in summary that both [sides] are important," says Steven A, Sparr, MD, associate professor of clinical neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Sparr, who was not involved in the study, tells WebMD, "There are some unique functions on each side, but they have to work together. For example, it seems that the right [side] may be more important for comprehending melody, whereas the left [side] may be more the rhythm."

But whether musical training causes the brain to develop in a certain way or people who are born with a certain brain anatomy gravitate naturally toward music is still unknown.

"The alternative would be that they are just born like this, and because they are endowed like this, that's why they become musicians and that's why they stick with it; ... others who might not have it might give up," Schlaug says.

But he adds that he favors the idea that training the brain can bring about changes in its structure, although that cannot be proved at this point.

The proof of the pudding may come from studies of other musicians, says Joseph C. Marcus, MD, associate professor of neurology at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. If other musicians, especially singers, were studied, he tells WebMD, the answer might be found; because singers do not play instruments, no movement is involved.

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