Saturday, October 31, 2009

Music and the Brain

Here's a brief story on Swiss research into music making being beneficial for the brain. Here are a two snips:

>>  there is growing evidence that musicians' brains look and work differently from those of others. The parts of the brain that control motor skills, hearing and memory become larger and more active when a person learns how to play an instrument. Alertness, planning and the ability to read emotions also improve. . . 

. . . Lutz Jancke, of the University of Zurich, said: "We found that even in people over the age of 65, after four or five months of playing for an hour a week, there were strong changes in the brain. The parts of the brain that control hearing, memory and the part that controls the hands, among others, all become more active. . . <<


  1. Interesting, but now I think about it, we shouldn't be surprised by this.

    We all know that practicing something makes you more accomplished at it and knowing better how to do it, and since the brain is where our memories and experiences are stored, it is to be expected that those parts of it that are associated with motor skills, hearing and memory are the ones which would undergo changes as a result of practicing.

    Still, an experimental verification is a nice thing to have, it suggests that our ideas about the brain (sketchy though they are) are on the right general track. Whether we know 3%, 0.3% or 0.0003% of all there is to know about the brain so far I have no idea. It probably will be left to future generations to answer that one!

    The idea that even people over 65 can undergo significant changes might perhaps be more surprising on the face of it, but I have known adult learners who took up the piano in their 70s or 80s and tremendously enjoyed the process of getting through their Grade 1 and 2 exams - and were very amused when the pupil ahead of them at exam time was about 6 years old!

  2. Jonathan - That's a terrific point about practicing and memory. The penny hadn't dropped for me that practicing involves building memories. The plasticity of the older brain (personally VERY encouraging!) sort of goes along with so many of the new studies showing how much more change can happen with application than was previously thought.

    When I went into music therapy back in the 70's, was excited to do so because it was a chance to be a pioneer, which has it's own rewards. But seeing all this validation pouring out of the labs makes me wonder just how much I've missed.

  3. Yes, practice build memories, and repeated practice builds stronger memories, which suggests that the newly developed neural pathways are strengthened by repetition of an activity. So this research in principle might provide a neurological explanation as to why slow repeated practice (such as I described in Practicing a difficult passage effectively) works so well.

    It's impossible to tell from this brief report whether in fact the research does go that far, but if it doesn't, it would be a logical thing to do more experiments specifically to test that hypothesis.

  4. You're right about "brief report". I tried to trace back to the original and couldn't find it in English. The thing about building memory by practice is one of those really obvious things I'd never thought of. Appreciate your pointing it out.