How different genres of music shape the brain

Playing music requires the brain to manage a complex set of inputs and outputs. The brain must translate visual musical symbols into complex motor commands whilst simultaneously monitoring the resulting auditory information­­­­­.

Whilst the cognitive differences between musicians and non-musicians are well characterised, less is known about differences between musicians. Recent research from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, has sought to change that.

In a study, published in NeuroImage, Daniela Samler and her team investigated the neurobiological differences in action planning – how a musician plans and performs movements whilst they play – in pianists who had specialised in classical or jazz. The authors hypothesised that the underlying brain activity of the performer would differ depending on the genre of music they specialised in. This is because the two styles of playing are distinct.

The authors describe jazz musicians as performing in a “structure-generative” way, where the focus is on creating a novel sequence in real time, and playing off the audience and the other band members. Classical musicians, however, are “structure interpretive” – the piece of music is fixed by the composer, and the focus is on performing the piece perfectly.

To investigate this, they took 30 professional pianists (15 trained in jazz, 15 classically trained) and monitored their brain activity using Electroencephalography (EEG), whilst getting them to imitate a chord sequence. The sequence was intentionally filled with incongruities in the progression of the harmony, and alterations in the fingering of the chord, to see how the musicians’ brains would react. The experiment was carried out in complete silence with a muted piano, to ensure the focus was just on action planning and the motor signals involved in that.

The scientists found that there were indeed differences in the brain activity between the two genres. The jazz musicians were more flexible in their playing, making them better at revising their action plan to accommodate harmonically unexpected chords, reflecting the improvisational nature of jazz. The classically trained musicians, conversely, faced more cognitive conflict and effort when required to revise their action plan. However, the classical pianists were better at detecting and following the unusual fingering, which perhaps reflects the focus on accurately performing a given piece of music.

So, if you play an instrument, the genre of music you choose to perform might be shaping your brain without you knowing.

Image credit: StockSnap via Pixabay

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