The brain and music: McGill team graphs regions of the brain responsible for music training and individual skill

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Nature and nurture in music has now been mapped by McGill neurologists who have recorded the activity and changes in the brains of young adults over the course of a six-week piano training session. Among the results of the research is a greater understanding of how natural disposition factors into skills like music.

“I would venture to say that new skills probably change almost the entire brain in some way or another,” Dr. Robert Zatorre, Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill’s Montreal Neurological Institute and lead author of the work, told The Speaker.

“What we try to do in our experiments is to isolate specific components of these changes so that we can characterize them accurately.”

In their recent work, the Neuro team sought to display and map the brain’s response to learning music. They also sought for differences in how individuals learn and respond to musical training.

The team provided six weeks of piano training for 15 young adults who had little or no background in music.

Robert Zatorre
Dr. Robert Zatorre

“We measured the entire brain simultaneously using functional MRI,” Zatorre told us, “and then searched the whole brain to find the areas that changed after training, and to distinguish them from those areas which were predictive of learning success.”

The brains of all of the young adults changed as they learned the motor skills involved with playing simple piano pieces, but the team found that the brain activity of some students predicted how quickly they would become skilled.

“The areas that changed most after training were in the premotor cortex and in the parietal cortex, regions concerned with coordinating movements and mapping actions to sounds; the areas that were predictive of subsequent learning were totally different from these and involved the auditory cortex and the hippocampus, the latter of course a structure involved in the formation of memories.”

Zatorre commented on the important role of individual predisposition in learning a skill like music.

“We think that those people who are better at initially encoding sound properties will subsequently have an edge when it comes to learning how to move their fingers to produce that same sound pattern,” Zatorre said.

And the findings do not apply only to music, but are an example of how the brain responds to any skill, according to the neurologists.Dr. Robert Zatorrebrain and music (1)

“We see it in the context of other research looking at skills such as learning the sounds of a foreign language, or skilled sports activities. In each of these cases there are distinct neural circuits that have to be “trained up” so the specific brain regions involved might differ. But we think the same principle may apply, that is, that some brain circuits are changed by training, but others may be indicative of the predisposition to learn a specific skill.”

The report, “Dissociation of Neural Networks for Predisposition and for Training-Related Plasticity in Auditory-Motor Learning,” was completed by Sibylle C. Herholz, Emily B.J. Coffey, Christo Pantev, and Robert J. Zatorre, and was published in Cerebral Cortex.

By Sid Douglas

Images 3 and 4 from the report of the Neuro team