“Musicians’ Brains Are Different from Other Peoples'”

March 16, 2010

A Barcelona neuroscientist has turned her attention from Down Syndrome and cognitive disorders to the brains that musicians navigate their world with. If you’re a musician, the non-musicians around you who think your mind works differently from theirs are right. By the same token, you are on solid ground if you sometimes find others’ ways of thinking somehow organically different from your own. The following is translated on the fly from a new interview in El Periódico de Catalunya:

– Why does music exist?
“Darwin didn’t figure out why humans spend so much effort on an activity with no clear biological function, but in the brain there is an impulse that encourages us to listen to and produce music.”

– My drive to produce reaches no further than tapping my foot.
“The brain of non-musicians reacts with the right hemisphere, the more emotional one, which registers the melodic contour. But the left, more analytical hemisphere is activated in musicians. They are preoccupied with the musical syntax, the language.”

– Do they perceive it in a different way?
“You could say that musicians have a brain unlike non-musicians. There are also differences between composers and improvisors.”

– What makes them different?
“Many conductors and composers have auditory imagery. You can ask them to play without sound and execute all the motions. It is as if they hear with the mind. Also tonal memory, which allows us to remember the sequences of tones.”

– Music is in my head!
“There are separate regions of the brain that specialize in recognizing a tone or a melody. Some can always tell a C is a C, thanks to what is called ‘absolute pitch.’ People who have absolute pitch display an asymmetry in the planum temporale, an area of the brain that deals with language.”

– And the hands of virtuosos?
“Music sets off distinct and complex skills in the brain. Violinists correct the position of their hands depending on what they hear. Audiomotor adjustment is exact.”

– Genes are everything!
“Heredity is a factor. 5% of people are tone-deaf, and 15% don’t sing. Entire families! But don’t be fooled: while there’s something that’s innate, environment is crucial.”

– At this altitude she tells me this [or can a reader provide a better translation?]!
“This is shown by studies of twins reared apart. We also know that listening to Mozart improves learning.”

Thanks to José Franch Ballester for pointing out the original article.

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