Learning the piano is no simple task. The organization of white and black keys may be easily explained, but developing the auditory and motor skills to reproduce Beethoven’s symphony requires more than an understanding of musical notes and notation. The key to music is practice. Repetition over time can turn most novice musicians into a force to be reckoned with, but what is really going on?
Your brain is changing.
Brain plasticity is the ability of our brains to wire according to our experiences. Every new experience induces a series of neural firings. As the saying goes, neurons that fire together, wire together. All this is very general, but it is a great foundation for more specific investigations. Music is a great place to start.
Musical ability requires a unique set of abilities. A musician must be able to hear a beat, recognize a tune, pull apart the structures of a stanza, and creatively sew together tones, melodies and bridges. In addition, their fingers need to be adept at taking this information and dexterously producing the appropriate sounds on their instrument of choice. In terms of brain functioning, these skills require the sophisticated coupling of auditory and motor information.
Recently, researchers decided to look at exactly how musical training impacts the brain. A group of expert musicians were selected and sent through a battery of tests. The white matter of their brains was then examined using diffusion tensor imaging. At the same time, an equally talented and well-trained group of dancers was tested.
Dancers require a different set of abilities than their musically-trained peers. A dancer uses their whole body to create art. To do so, they must process auditory information, while also incorporating a much wider scope of movement and visual cues.
When the results were tallied, they perfectly aligned with what one might expect. The white matter regions of musicians’ brains were characterized by coherent fibers in similar areas and less diffusivity than average. In contrast, the dancers’ brains showed increased diffusivity and less coherence. Both artists had evolved from the norm, but in opposite directions: one to coordinate the movement of only their fingers to auditory sounds, the other to coordinate their entire body.