When a pianist sits down on the bench, she doesn't give a second thought to everything she's about to do.
She doesn't think about the network of hand muscles she'll have to contract and relax in order to press her pointer 300 times in the next five minutes, how she'll have to stretch and relax her Achilles tendon as she selects pedals, how her eyes will have to get ahead of her fingers as she reads sheet music, or how her memory will have to recall melodies in order to flawlessly get through the piece.
She just plays.
The same can't be said for her brain, which will have to accomplish all of those tasks, and then some. Playing an instrument, far from just enhancing the ear for sound, is a multifaceted undertaking that engages and cultivates several different brain regions.
The task requires a simultaneous integration of information, which necessitates communication between specific sensory systems—such as the auditory, somatosensory, and visual—as well as their interplay with the motor, executive and affective regions of the brain to produce timely and coordinated movements.
"The combination of such demands is likely to influence the development and maintenance of brain structures and their function," says neuroscientist and musician Assal Habibi of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Music training, in both children and adults, has also been linked to improvements in cognitive domains that are only indirectly related to music, namely language, mathematical skills, IQ and overall academic achievement in children, Habibi says.
Molding the brain from all directions
The brain is a flexible organ, and much like most other activities and skills, learning to play an instrument rewires the brain regions involved in auditory processing and movement control. However, scientists have also found structural differences in the brain, outside of auditory and motor areas: in the inferior frontal regions—responsible for speech processing and other cognitive functions like detecting a target stimulus —and multimodal integration regions, which are areas that combine information from primary sensory zones like auditory and visual.
"This suggests that music-related neuroplasticity extends to brain regions that are not primarily engaged in processing music by immediate sensorimotor demands," says Habibi, who's currently part of running a five-year long study on the effects of music training on children's lives, their cognitive development and their emotional and social skills.
As a bonus, when performing music, individuals also experience pleasure, eliciting the reward region of the brain, the striatum—traditionally associated with more basic rewards such as eating food or mating.
"It's been a really novel finding in the field of music that this artificial stimulus, which some might argue may not have any evolutionary advantages, also seems to elicit the very same reward processing center of the brain that stimulates activities—food and sex—which are important for human survival," says scientist Joyce Chen of the HSF Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery at Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto.
Cross-fit training for the brain?
Do these findings mean that playing music is the ultimate mental workout? Some researchers say music, in fact, may not be unique in how it involves brain regions and that comparable artistic pursuits could prompt similar responses.
"Creating a painting, for example, elicits some of these similar creative processes," Chen says. "I don't know if there have been brain imaging studies explicitly comparing music with another enriching stimulus, but I would suspect there might be similar areas that are activated. Thus from my perspective I take the position that the engagement of many parts of the brain during music listening or music making, is not necessarily unique to music."
Chen is part of a study that will compare stroke patients who undergo music supported rehabilitation to a control group of patients who undergo equally intense rehab exercises that are considered "best practice" for stroke rehab in general.
"We are still collecting data so do not have results available yet but there's certainly interest in trying to harness the effects of music," she says. "It is an enriching stimulus that may not only improve aspects of movement such as coordination, but perhaps processes such as memory or attention."
Scientists believe in the brain's plasticity, its ability to change. Because of the overlap between neural circuits dedicated to speech and music, and the distributed network of cognitive, sensorimotor, and reward circuits engaged, it appears that making music is an art that effectively drives experience-dependent plasticity.
"Expose the brain to meaningful activity, whether that's perhaps drawing or pottery classes, and it will respond," says researcher Nina Kraus of The Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University. "But we also believe music offers unique benefits: In our longitudinal study of high schoolers, for instance, we found unique brain changes following music training, but not athletics. And we have colleagues who have compared music training to painting training, and again found unique changes following music."
With effects consistent across the lifespan, the artistic pursuit of playing music could also act as a protective factor against cognitive impairment in aging adults.
"The musicians' neural signature is retained into older adulthood with regular practice," Kraus says. "Relative to peers, older adults [with musical training] have more effective neural processing and better hearing in noise. Sustained music practice may offset aging, and potentially compensate for hearing loss."