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Musicians networked brains

Musicians have more brain connections than non-musicians, according to new research published in the Journal of Neuroscience, and these connections are stronger in those who started training at a younger age.

This difference appeared whether or not musicians have perfect or absolute pitch, a rare talent to identify a musical note without any reference, and signifies the benefit of environmental stimulation for brain development.

“Our findings underline how the human brain is shaped by experience such as long-term, intensive music training,” says lead author Simon Leipold, from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. 

“This experience-dependent plasticity might be particularly strong for individuals who start intensive training early in life.” 

The work builds on research over the past couple of decades with experienced musicians using modern neuroimaging techniques to explore how the brain changes with dedicated training. 

“They have excellent listening skills,” explains Leipold. “For example, they hear very subtle differences in pitch, and these enhanced auditory abilities are accompanied by functional differences in relevant brain regions when probed by a task.”

Studies have also found that some brain regions of musicians are larger, such as those involved in music production. 

Leipold’s group, led by senior author Lutz Jäncke, and others have further shown different brain activation in musicians with perfect pitch when asked to label a tone compared to others, a topic they say “has fascinated neuroscientists, psychologists and musicologists for a long time”.

For the current research, they used magnetic resonance imaging to compare brain networks of 52 musicians with and 51 without perfect pitch and 50 non-musicians, which they say is the largest study of its kind – finding absolute pitch musicians is no easy task.

“We found robust effects of musicianship in both structural and functional networks, especially regarding connections between the auditory cortical regions of both hemispheres,” says Leipold.

Not only did most of those effects appear in musicians compared to non-musicians, they were also “strikingly similar” in those with and without perfect pitch.

Extending this finding, the team taught a machine learning algorithm what the neural networks of a musician look like and applied this knowledge to classify unknown individuals as musician or non-musician, with interesting results.

“When trained on functional networks, the algorithm performed well in differentiating between musicians and non-musicians, but frequently confused musicians with and without absolute pitch, suggesting their networks are highly similar,” says Leipold. “To the best of our knowledge, no previous study has done that.”

As the latter differences are more subtle, they suggest larger samples will be needed to unravel them.

The study also found that the age at which they had started training altered connections between auditory areas in the brain’s left and right hemispheres and the configuration of connections between major brain regions across the whole brain – the “connectome” – which underlies a host of important brain functions.

“So, early music training might affect the brain at different levels,” says Leipold, “locally and more globally.”