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Brainy Musicians - It's All in Their Heads

Many of us may have an ear for music, but what about our brains? Is there such a thing as brain for music?

There seems to be.

Several scientific studies lead us to believe that the brains of musicians are different from the brains of those who are not musically inclined.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that there is a correlation between musical training and the way our brain functions. Most specifically, the studies show that, unlike artists or other creative individuals, musicians have distinctly recognizable brains, enlarged and asymmetric in the auditory cortex, the region of the brain that is responsible for hearing.

A Mind-Boggling Discovery

Musical ability has long been attributed to the right hemisphere of the brain, the side that processes emotions, visual imagery, face recognition, and spatial abilities. (The left side handles language, math, and logic).

Thats how it works for most of us with regular brains. Musicians, however, seem to be on a different (brain) wavelength -- when playing or listening to music, research shows, they use the left hemisphere much more than the right.

Studies carried out by German neurologists already in the 1990s, suggest that this difference can be attributed to the anatomical structure of a musicians brain. The neurologists compared magnetic resonance images (MRI) of the brains of 27 right-handed piano players with those of 27 right-handed non-musicians. They discovered that in musicians the part of the brain associated with auditory processing brains recognition and interpretation of sounds was larger in the left hemisphere than in the regular population.

Researchers noted that the differences were especially obvious among musicians who had started training before the age of seven. Their corpus callosum, a pathway consisting of millions of nerve fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres, is 10 to 15 percent thicker than in non-musicians, or even those who started training later in life.

What exactly does this mean and why is it important?

Since each hemisphere controls movements on the opposite side of the body, quick interaction and communication between the two hemispheres ensures fluid finger coordination, a crucial ability for a pianist, violinist, cellist, or any other musician who relies on his or her fingers to make beautiful sounds that are, literally, music to our ears.

More Evidence

More recent studies also reiterate the finding that musicians brains are, indeed, different. A joint project by Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Music Research Institute, presented at the 2007 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego shed some interesting light on this phenomenon.

Neurological comparison of 20 music conductors and 20 non-musicians showed that both groups tended to tune out their visual sense while performing a difficult hearing task. But as the task became more complex, only the non-musicians tuned out their visual sense, while the conductors, who are used to differentiating very subtle differences in sounds, were able to focus on a difficult auditory task. This finding led the researchers to conclude that the conductors musical training and experience had an impact on how their brains work.

But that is not all. A group of scientists from the University of Chicago, led by professor of Neurology and Psychology Steven Small, used MRI scans to study whether there were differences in brain activity when violinists and people with no musical training moved their fingers.

The researchers noticed that in violinists, movement of fingers in the left hand was predicted by activity in the motor brain region, which is located on the left side of the brain and controls movement on the right side of the body, but that finding was not replicated in non-musicians. By comparing the results from both test groups, scientists deducted that violinists brain activity is different from that of non-musicians.

And even more evidence comes from neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has been studying the intricacies of the human brain, as well as the power of music, for many years.

The author of Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, Sacks says that, unlike artists and other creative people, musicians brains have striking structural differences.

He refers to the study conducted by a noted scientist, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug. His data shows that while musical ability does not influence the total brain size, musicians tend to have larger motor cortexes than non-musicians. And, for reasons not yet fully elucidated, there are even more pronounced differences in the brains of musicians with absolute pitch.

The studies, Sacks says, dont reveal whether a person is a genius or a fool. But they show how the power of music affects many parts of the brain.

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