While I regularly discuss the potential music can offer to people living with dementia, I really haven’t given much background on the neuroscience of music. Exactly how can playing a musical instrument shape our brain?
Our brain is split in two, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere is said to be responsible for logic and scientific endeavours, while the right hemisphere is said to be responsible for creativity. Essentially, we would use the left side of our brain for maths or science, while we would draw upon the right hemisphere for more creative tasks, such as art. Connecting the two hemispheres is a bridge of cells called the corpus callosum. Neurons (messages) fire between the two hemispheres through the corpus callosum. See the diagram below, the red structure is the corpus callosum.
Music & Neuroscience
Music requires the involvement of both hemispheres. Why? Well, if you think of a musician playing a violin. As they play, they require the precision and analytical skills of the left hemisphere as well as the creativity of the right hemisphere. So, both hemispheres have to work together for a musician to successful play their instrument. Over time, this causes the corpus callosum to grow bigger in a musician’s brain. A larger corpus callosum means the neurons in a musicians brain can take more diverse routes and fire more efficiently.
But it’s not just the corpus callosum other parts of the brain, which are responsible for hearing, seeing and moving, also change in size. Like regularly lifting weights to grow a muscle, regularly playing a musical instrument causes all these areas (auditory, visual, motor & corpus callosum) to grow.
Music & Cognition
So, this poses the question, how do all these changes in structure translate to how our brain functions? Well, musicians have been shown to have greater ‘higher order cognitive abilities’, so they demonstrate a greater ability to focus attention, to avoid distractions, to multitask etc.
So regularly playing a musical instrument not only structurally changes the shape of our brain, it changes how our brain functions!
In the next blog post, I will discuss how we can take this knowledge forward in relation to brain health. If playing a musical instrument in your early-midlife causes all these structural and cognitive changes, what happens your brain as you age? Can playing a musical instrument keep your brain healthy as you get older?