Music Tunes the Brain

From a study by Margulis, EH, Mlsna, LM, Uppunda, AK, Parrish, TB, and Wong, PC:

To appropriately adapt to constant sensory stimulation, neurons in the auditory system are tuned to various acoustic characteristics, such as center frequencies, frequency modulations, and their combinations, particularly those combinations that carry species-specific communicative functions. The present study asks whether such tunings extend beyond acoustic and communicative functions to auditory self-relevance and expertise. More specifically, we examined the role of the listening biography-an individual’s long term experience with a particular type of auditory input-on perceptual-neural plasticity. Two groups of expert instrumentalists (violinists and flutists) listened to matched musical excerpts played on the two instruments (J.S. Bach Partitas for solo violin and flute) while their cerebral hemodynamic responses were measured using fMRI. Our experimental design allowed for a comprehensive investigation of the neurophysiology (cerebral hemodynamic responses as measured by fMRI) of auditory expertise (i.e., when violinists listened to violin music and when flutists listened to flute music) and nonexpertise (i.e., when subjects listened to music played on the other instrument). We found an extensive cerebral network of expertise [emphasis added], which implicates increased sensitivity to musical syntax (BA 44), timbre (auditory association cortex), and sound-motor interactions (precentral gyrus) when listening to music played on the instrument of expertise (the instrument for which subjects had a unique listening biography). These findings highlight auditory self-relevance and expertise as a mechanism of perceptual-neural plasticity, and implicate neural tuning that includes and extends beyond acoustic and communication-relevant structures [emphasis added].

The researchers here are saying that what you hear influences the mapping in your brain. As you listen to music, you develop an “expertise” in the kind of music you listen to. Then when you hear the type of music you are expert in, many areas to the brain work together to interpret that music (meaning that the more experience you have with a certain type of music, the more the brain learns to work together when you hear it).

A violin lies on a flat white surface; the photo is taken from the scroll of the violin, everything beyond the scroll is out of focus.

Close-up of Violin
Foto Bureau Nz Limited

We have seen from other studies the beneficial effects of the brain on classical music, so the implication here is that the more you listen to classical music, the more your brain learns to work together to process it when you hear it. (Which may explain why tasks get easier the more you do them.) So if you’re new to classical music, take heart, it will get easier and you will learn to enjoy it more–and as you do, your brain will receive even more benefits from the workout!

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