Insights into the Musical Brain

Musical training and your brain

Auditory Neuroscience Lab’s Slide Show

One of my most popular blog posts over the past few years has been “Study: Music Gives Brain a Pleasure Rush” which drew its info from an article in Nature magazine.

Almost two years to the day after I wrote that article I would again like to draw your attention to some “musical-brain” research. This time it is being done at my alma mater Northwestern University. In addition to having one of America’s top music schools, Northwestern also has an outstanding School of Communication.

As part of the cutting-edge research done at Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, the scientists there are attempting to figure out how the art of music works in our brains.

This neural encoding of music is summarized this way:

Musical experience has a pervasive effect on the nervous system. Our recent articles show that lifelong musical experience enhances neural encoding of speech as well as music, and heightens audiovisual interaction. Our work suggests that musicians have a specialized neural system for processing sight and sound in the brainstem, the neural gateway to the brain. This evolutionarily ancient part of the brain was previously thought to be relatively unmalleable; however, our studies indicate that music, a high-order cognitive process, affects automatic processing that occurs early in the processing stream, and fundamentally shapes subcortical sensory circuitry.

Fairly dense, eh? As someone who has personally experienced nearly life-long musical training I can attest that along the way I have also had a parallel visual development. I am no artist in terms of painting or drawing but I have been told for a long time that I am a very fine photographer.

Judging from the above introductory text, much of the information on the ANL’s web site is very specialist in nature. This is a case of scientists talking to other scientists.

However, for us mere mortals or musicians, there is an excellent slide show on the ANL’s web site that visually summarizes some of ANL’s most important findings.

It is very much worth going through the 33 slides.

The most important thing about the ANL research that I noticed is that the many benefits ascribed to music are based on ACTIVE music making. That is you must actually play or learn to play an instrument. Simply listening to music in the background may have temporary benefits for your mood but it apparently does not have a lasting effect on the development of the human brain.

Musical training provides long-lasting neural benefits.

Musical training provides long-lasting neural benefits.Musical training provides long-lasting neural benefits.

So, turn off your computer and go practice!


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