Musicians Have Better Brainstems

From a study by Wong PC, Skoe E, Russo NM, Dees T, and Kraus N:

Music and speech are very cognitively demanding auditory phenomena generally attributed to cortical rather than subcortical circuitry. We examined brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch and found that musicians show more robust and faithful encoding compared with nonmusicians [emphasis added]. These results not only implicate a common subcortical manifestation for two presumed cortical functions, but also a possible reciprocity of corticofugal speech and music tuning, providing neurophysiological explanations for musicians’ higher language-learning ability.

We knew from earlier studies about both the superior cortical development of musicians and about the role of the brainstem in speech and music, but this study shows that learning to play music makes permanent alterations in the brainstem, and therefore musicians are able to better and more accurately interpret speech. In addition, music and language have both long been presumed to be entirely cortical functions, yet here the brainstem, long thought to be involved only in functions such as balance, is implicated in language and music.

This study is interesting because first, musicians show brain development in unexpected areas, so we must rethink our assumptions about the influence of learning music on the brain. It’s not just the cortical areas that benefit, but the whole brain. Second, the brainstem (and presumably, now, other areas of the brain) are involved in language processing. Therefore, it’s time to rethink everything we know about what each part of the brain does, and that means that we need to rethink some of our basic assumptions about the discrete nature of language, mathematics, etc. It may be that when one takes subjects in isolation, or concentrates on teaching certain subjects exclusively (such as the STEM curricula), that the students’ learning is being crippled because the brain is not allowed to fully develop and integrate.

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