Music and the Brain
As is now a well-known phenomenon in the world of psychology, a human’s brain is in a constant interactive state within the environment in which it is found – from birth to adulthood (BrinkFlores 2018: 101; Louw and Louw 2014, 2019). In the years after birth, rapid changes occur in the brain. More specifically, the process of ‘neural pruning’ (numerous synapses are either maintained or destroyed) is a prominent part of the processes in which the brain is moulded by experience and its interactions within various contexts (Brink-Flores 2018: 101; Neuroplasticity 2020 [O]).
Neural plasticity is the process whereby the brain develops or grows and changes in its ‘anatomical and physiological’ structure due to its interaction with the environment as well as through ‘repeated behaviour’ (Ibid.). Regular practise (of a musical instrument) determines which ‘neural circuits’ are strengthened or optimized to reinforce specific abilities (Ibid.).
Research has proven that the practise of playing a musical instrument places certain demands on the human brain and nervous system. This includes the amalgamation of ‘perception and action mediated by sensory, motor, and multimodal integration regions’ in the brain (Brink-Flores 2018: 101; Putkinen and Tervaniemi 2019; McPherson and Hallam 2015; Schlaug 2012).
Most Western musicians begin their regular and intensive musical training in early childhood, which usually continues into late adolescence and sometimes adulthood. For this reason, the musician’s brain represents an ‘ideal’ field of study in ‘learning processes in the brain’ especially regarding their developed ‘sensorimotor, auditory and auditorimotor skills’ (Brink-Flores 2018: 101; Ibid.).
A Musician’s Brain
Regular and intensive training and practise on a musical instrument has been shown to reorganise the development of a human’s brain (Ibid.). We can agree that the expected changes would include changes to the primary brain regions. This involves the ‘primary auditory cortex and the auditory association cortex’ regions which are substantially more developed in a musician’s brain. The sensorimotor cortex and related structures responsible for refined and independent finger movements also show increased development in the brain of a musician (Brink-Flores 2018: 101; Ibid.).
A musician’s brain also reveals an increased development of the ‘midsagittal side of the corpus collosum’ which proves that the demanding process of performing on an instrument develops the communication channels between the right and left hemispheres of the brain to a certain degree (Brink-Flores 2018: 101). Additionally, the age and years of tuition and practise of a musician is considered as the more years involved in music training and practise reveals these anatomical changes in the brain to be even more pronounced (Brink-Flores 2018: 102; Ibid.).
The above discussion is thus based on the premise that almost all healthy and ablebodied human beings possess the capacity to develop some form of musical ability with hard work and musical training of some kind. This can no doubt be in correlation to learning how to play the piano. In fact, anyone…and I mean anyone can learn to play the piano. Although unique, there are performing pianists who are either autistic, blind, have no hands, arms, or fingers. To believe one ‘needs talent’ without perseverance and discipline is a misconception – even Bach (all composer relatives), W.A. Mozart, L. Von Beethoven and the other highly regarded composers and musicians in history had to work at their abilities to refine and develop them (Burkholder et al. 2014).
"…the expected changes would include changes to the primary brain regions. This involves the ‘primary auditory cortex and the auditory association cortex’ regions which are substantially more developed in a musician’s brain."
An interesting quotation to finalize my point here is found in the writings of Patricia Shehan (1987:46; Jorritsma et al. 2010);
To present-day Slavic people, everyone is a potential musician. Talent is not believed to be inherited, nor is it something that only certain select people are born with. Music is perceived as a participatory activity in which all members of a social unit perform as part of an observed custom. Strong interest, practice and perseverance are the main requisites for any aspiring musician. Music is integrally linked with social situations, and gathering together requires music in every celebration.
Moving forward, in my own experience as a Piano Teacher, I have witnessed both children and adults grow at the piano. Initially, finger dexterity, aural perception and sensory-motor skills seem to be the first signs of regular practise and lessons. As lessons continue, though, the psychological enrichment children and adult students receive from regular lessons and practise are the most rewarding aspects of my work. Often shy and anxious children grow in their confidence – with support from their teacher and parents – and eventually learn self-discipline and the value of learning a cultural skill. For adults, taking up music and piano is often for self-development or to make-up for not being able to lessons in childhood.
In closing, I trust the information provided here has brought to light the overall biological and psychological value of learning a musical instrument for both children and adults. Furthermore, I trust this article may inspire and encourage parents to invest in piano and music theory lessons for their children as well as motivate adults to take up lessons - it is never too late! Learning about music and how to perform at the piano can be a wonderful journey of self-discovery and (as discussed) may provide considerable value to one’s quality of life.
Jorritsma, Marie., King, George. & Steyn, Carol. 2010. Only Study Guide for MHS3703. Music and Gender. UNISA: Pretoria
Louw, D.A., and Louw, A.E. 2014. Child and adolescent development (2nd ed.). Bloemfontein: Psychology Publications.
Louw, D., and Louw, A. 2009. Adult Development and Ageing. Bloemfontein: Psychology Publications.
McPherson, Gary E. and Hallam, Susan. 2015. ‘Musical Potential.’ The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology (2 ed.). Hallam, S., Cross, I., and Thaut, M. (Eds.). Available: DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198722946.013.4
N.a. 2020. ‘Neuroplasticity. [O]. Britannica Academic. Accessed: 4 September 2020.
Putkinen, Vesa and Tervaniemi, Mari. 2019. ‘Neuroplasticity in Music Learning.’ The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Brain. Thaut, M., and Hodges, DA. (Eds.). Available: DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198804123.013.22
Pooley, Thomas M. & Brink-Flores, Kim. 2018. Psychology of Music. Only Study Guide for MHS3713. Pretoria: UNISA.
Schlaug, Gottfried. 2012. ‘Music, musicians, and brain plasticity.’ Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology (1 ed.). Hallam, S., Cross, I., and Thaut, M. (Eds.). Available: DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199298457.013.0018
Shehan, P.K. 1987. ‘Balkan Women as Preservers of Traditional Music and Culture.' In Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. E. Koskoff. New York and London: Greenwood Press. 45-53.