Musicians, compared to non-musicians, are skilled in performing complex physical and mental operations. They can translate visually presented musical symbols into complex, sequential finger movements, improvisation, memorisation of long musical phrases, and identification of tones without the use of a reference tone. After all, playing a musical instrument requires simultaneous integration of multimodal sensory feedback mechanisms to monitor performance.
Numerous functional imaging studies showed differences between musicians and non-musicians while performing motor, auditory, or somatosensory tasks. Brain structural differences between musicians and non-musicians were reported in a few defined motor and auditory brain regions. Although no study has searched across the whole brain space to compare the entire structural differences between musicians and non-musicians, playing music does change the grey and white matter in your brain.
Cross-system Stimulation in your Brain
Playing a musical instrument can be one of the most complicated processes that the mind and the body can do. Practising an instrument demands multiple systems to cooperate in real-time from the central nervous system, made up of the brain and the spinal cord to the peripheral nerves in your hands and your fingers.
The motor system coordinates the movement you need to produce sound - such as strumming the guitar and playing the piano scales. The sound you produce is processed through auditory circuitry so that you can hear and adjust your playing. Sensory information plays a part as well by sending information from the hands and fingers back to the brain. Reading music depends on visual cues and the brain processes emotional responses to the music. All of these going on in a musician’s brain and spinal cord is known as cross-system stimulation.
Music and Grey Matter
A study found that adults who learn music were found to have more grey matter in their brains than those that did not. Grey matter consists of neuronal cell bodies that help us process information. The scientists who conducted the study from Harvard Medical School hypothesized that the increase could be a result of the steady practice needed to play a musical instrument proficiently. The brains of musicians seem to adapt structurally to the repetition of the complex motor and auditory skills involved in playing music.
Music and White Matter
While grey matter processes information in the brain, white matter helps you to communicate it. White matter connects the bridge between the right and the left brain passing information back and forth.
It has been found that playing music helps to build white matter because when practising an instrument, the left brain communicates linguistic and mathematical knowledge. The right brain on the other hand, contributes to creativity and reaps emotional understanding from musical expression. Playing an instrument skillfully involves the use of both hands. This requires both sides of the brain to work and calibrate fine motor responses, communicating across the corpus callosum.
Advantages of Learning Music Young
As with everything in life, being young gives us the advantage in learning. Research has shown that learning a musical instrument before the age of 7 can increase the amount of white matter in your brain, which increases your skills both as a musician and a communicator. Practising music just a half-hour a week led to increased IQ scores and heightened verbal ability across the board in a study following children the ages of 7 to 9 who were playing musical instruments.
That being said, playing a musical instrument is beneficial for everyone of all ages. To find out which musical instrument suits you, come for a trial class at Ritmo Music Studio, located in Chinatown in Singapore.