Musical Training Activates the Brain

From a study by P. Bermudez & R.J. Zatorre:

An fMRI study was conducted to test the hypothesis that Absolute Pitch (AP), the ability to identify the names of musical pitches without reference to a standard, involves, in part, the ability to store and retrieve an arbitrary association between a stimulus attribute (the pitch of a sound) and a verbal label (note name). The posterior dorsolateral frontal cortex (pDFC) has been implicated in conditional associative learning with many types of stimuli, and a prior PET study showed pDFC activity in AP musicians, but not controls, while listening to single tones. It was therefore predicted that non-musicians would also show activation in the pDFC while performing a task designed to have limited analogy to AP. 8 normal volunteers with no formal musical knowledge underwent 2 fMRI scanning sessions: one pre-training baseline session and one post-training session. During offline training, subjects learned to associate each of 4 chordal stimuli with one of 4 numbers. fMRI was performed using a clustered acquisition in a block design. During the active condition, subjects heard one chord every 10s and identified it with a button press. Both the pre- and post-training scans showed activation in primary and secondary auditory cortices related to the perception of the auditory stimuli, but only the post-training scan showed significant bilateral activity in the pDFC, as well as ventrolateral frontal cortices. This indicates that pDFC is involved in associative learning of chord names. We infer that part of the chain of processing involved in AP, the conditional associative pairing of the perception of pitch with a note name, involves a similar process and hence recruits the pDFC.

side view of the brain with the different structures of the cortex, cerebellum and brainstem labeled

Brain Sections

What interests me about this study is two things: the brain activity involved in learned knowledge among non-musicians is in the same area of the brain as activity associated with perfect pitch; and the exercising of the brain occurs pDFC after a short time of learning. We don’t know all the functions of this part of the brain, but it’s clear that learning note names or chord names activates this region of the brain, while it’s not activated if the person doesn’t learn it. Just another argument for finding a music teacher and booking lessons!

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