Study observes unique neurological markers of lifelong musicians

A recent study in Japan has found that students who are taught to play music from childhood demonstrate particular kinds of brain activity more strongly than their non-musical peers. Researchers assigned secondary school students a musical observation task and studied their neural activity using magnetic resonance imaging. Their findings also uncovered a previously unknown connection between the areas of the brain responsible for musical processing and language processing.

To explore their hypothesis, researchers gathered data from 98 Japanese secondary school students in three groups, each with a different level of musical training. Group S (Suzuki) had been trained from early childhood in the Suzuki method, while Group E (Early) had been receiving musical training for the same amount of time but not in the Suzuki method. The final group, Group L (Late), had either not received musical training or had started non-Suzuki training at a later age than their peers.

Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo is a neuroscientist, but he is also a passionate musician. His fascination with human language and music is informed by the principles of the Suzuki method, which purports that young children can learn to play music using rhythm and repetition, similarly to how they learn their native language.

“In the field of neuroscience, it is well established that there are areas of the brain that deal specifically with language, and even specialized regions that correspond to different parts of language processing such as grammar or syntax,” said Sakai. “We wondered if training under the Suzuki method might lead to activity in such areas, not when using language, but when engaging with music. Our study reveals this is indeed the case.”

Dynamic 3D models of students’ brain activity were created through taking a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan. Students were then tasked with finding pitch, tempo, stress and articulation errors in a piece of music played to them. Results showed that students in groups S and E demonstrated more brain activity than Group L, with particularly strong reactions while concentrating on pitch and articulation. Groups S and E saw different areas of the brain react depending on what kind of error they were looking for.

When working with Group S, researchers noticed distinct areas of brain activity in the right brain—the part of the brain associated with melody and emotion—when working on the tempo condition. These findings are consistent with the ideology of the Suzuki method.

“One striking observation was that regardless of musical experience, the highly specific grammar center in the left brain was activated during the articulation condition,” said Sakai. “This connection between music and language might explain why everyone can enjoy music even if they are not musical themselves.”

Going forward, researchers have reason to believe that there is more to learn about the unique minds of musicians and other artists. Future research is likely to uncover more about the distinct neurological activity observed in Sakai’s study. As for Sakai and his team, “we wish to delve deeper into the connection between music and language by designing novel experiments to tease out more elusive details,” he said.

The results were published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

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