Music students exhibited certain kinds of brain activity more strongly than other students

Mapping the musical mind.


Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo used MRI imaging to study the brains of secondary school students during a task focused on musical observation. They found that students trained to play music from a young age exhibited specific brain activity more strongly than others.

Sakai said, “In the field of neuroscience, it is well established that there are areas of the brain that deal specifically with language and even specialized regions that correspond to different parts of language processing such as grammar or syntax. We wondered if training under the Suzuki method might lead to activity in such areas, not when using language but when engaging with music. Our study reveals this is indeed the case.”

The study involved 98 students categorized into three groups: Group S (Suzuki) was trained from a young age in the Suzuki method, Group E (Early) was musically trained from a young age but not in the Suzuki method, and Group L (Late) was either musically trained at a later age, but not in the Suzuki method, or were not musically trained at all.

Scientists performed fMRI and produced dynamic 3D models of their brains’ activity. They were given a musical exercise to identify errors in a piece of music played to them during this time. The musical pieces played had errors in one of four musical conditions: pitch, tempo, stress, and articulation.

Scientists found that groups S and E showed more overall brain activity than Group L, especially during the pitch and articulation conditions. Groups S and E showed activity in particular regions depending on the error being tested for. Interestingly, Group S showed some unique activation patterns, mostly in areas of the right brain, associated with emotion and melody during the tempo condition, supporting the ideas behind the Suzuki method.

Sakai said“One striking observation was that regardless of musical experience, the particular grammar center in the left brain was activated during the articulation condition. This connection between music and language might explain why everyone can enjoy music even if they are not musical themselves.”

“Other researchers, perhaps those studying neurological traits of artistic experts, may be able to build on what we’ve found here. As for ourselves, we wish to delve deeper into the connection between music and language by designing novel experiments to tease out more elusive details.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Kuniyoshi L Sakai, Yoshiaki Oshiba, Reiya Horisawa, Takeaki Miyamae, Ryugo Hayano. Music-Experience-Related and Musical-Error-Dependent Activations in the Brain. Cerebral Cortex, 2021; DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhab478
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