Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Making Music Changes Brains

Schlaug, G. (2010) Making Music Changes Brains, Gottfried Schlaug: Music and the Brain. [podcast] April 29, 2010. Link: http://www.loc.gov/podcasts/musicandthebrain/podcast_schlaug.html [Accessed: September 24, 2012].

Making Music Changes Brains

This podcast is an interview with Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, Director of the Music, Neuroimaging, and Stroke Recovery Laboratories at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre and Harvard Medical School. It explores notable differences between the brains of professional musicians and non-musicians as discovered by Dr. Schlaug and his team after the integration of MRI technology into the science of neurology.

He begins by discussing a hypothesis previously formed in the 80’s by Dr. Norman Geschwind and Dr. Albert Galaburda. It was thought that music processing might potentially be located in the right side of the brain. The human brain is asymmetrical and if there were deviations from typical patterns of brain laterality, meaning a person had either a symmetrical brain, or if they had a right-sided asymmetric brain, they may be particularly talented in music or music processing. A musician’s right hemisphere would be larger than that of a non-musician. This hypothesis was wrong.

In the early 90’s Dr. Schlaug and his team scanned the brains of a group of professional adult musicians and found no major differences between them and a group of non-musical adults. It was clear that there was no overwhelming correlation between music processing and the right side of the brain - their brains looked normal. However, many important and interesting discoveries were made during these tests.

They noticed that within a sub-group of those musicians, musicians with absolute pitch, their brains were lateralized toward the left side - their left hemisphere was larger than their right. Schlaug and his team could physically where absolute pitch was being processed in the brain and this was very encouraging.

They also came to learn that musicians exercise their auditory and motor systems like athletes exercise their muscles. They train their auditory systems to better discriminate against sounds, and they train their fine motor skills to be able to perform intricate and complex tasks with both hands. It was clear that there were similarities and a connection between the auditory and motor systems during music making, and that there was also a connection between the right and left sides of the brain in those musicians who actively practiced. The visual-auditory-motor domains in the brains of musicians were functioning at higher levels and had a much more sophisticated output than in the brains of non-musicians.

Potentially, when trained musicians perform non-musical tasks that use these visual-auditory-motor domains, like the inferior frontal gyrus (which sits in front of the motor system), the changes to these domains will have a positive influence on those tasks. That is to say, even non-music related processes would be functioning at a higher level in these “changed” areas in the brain.

As the interview comes to an end, Dr. Schlaug briefly touches on the importance of music education in the development of a child’s brain. He also mentions his work using song as a means of verbal development within children, as well as rehabilitation of the speech/language functions lost in stroke victims.


It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that the specific traits and skills associated with the development of musical ability can be linked to positively affecting other aspects of our brain and neurological processing/development. We’ve all heard the statistics and studies over the years exclaiming the benefits of an education in the arts, especially one in music. Personally, I can certainly see links between many of my own characteristics and the many skills I have honed, intentionally or not, throughout my structured and focused musical training. In fact, many of the concepts and practices I value on a day-to-day basis, such as organization, beauty, personal growth and improvement, can all be easily related to an education in music.

I am curious to see if a musician has increased activity and development/change in the areas of the brain associated with concepts such as perfectionism (a good performance), punctuality (time), self-esteem (appreciation/recognition), or spontaneity (improvisation).  How much of the connection between musical training and increase in certain neurological outputs is related to functions of the brain, opposed to a more psychological approach?

Lastly, while listening to this interview I found myself thinking of Jourdain’s Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy. When Dr. Schlaug mentions the skills musicians develop in the auditory and motor cortexes, complex sound discrimination and fine motor skills, I was pleased to associate the discussion with something I had recently read in Jourdain’s book concerning reading music. We as musicians have developed the ability to read many lines and clefs at once, in a sense processing two or more “languages” simultaneously. Having the association and reinforcement of new concepts and knowledge shared in our readings and class discussions has really enabled me to open up my mind to asking questions and to critical thinking.

1 comment:

Katherine Napiwotzki said...

I found it especially interesting that there is a connection between the right and left sides of the brain in musicians who actively practice. This could possibly account for the stories of musicians who develop aphasia after brain damage due to stroke, etc., but appear to still retain all their musical abilities. If there is a strong connection between the two hemispheres of the brain, then it is more likely that one side will attempt to compensate for injury to the other side. I also find it interesting that Dr. Schlaug’s study found no significant correlation between music processing and the right side of the brain as I have read that amusia is thought to be caused by a deficiency in the right side of the brain, although this has not been proven as far as I know. Since music develops the auditory domain allowing it to function at a higher level, is makes sense that music training would improve language perception. I can see how this contributes to the explanation of how music therapy can help individuals suffering from language impairments and children learning to speak and comprehend language.