Music-Making and its Relationship with Neural Plasticity

By Ayoush Srivastava

The structure of the brain is everchanging throughout its lifespan. In response to various stimuli, the neural networks that compose the brain can reorganise their connections with one another to maintain the robustness of the nervous system against similar stimuli (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). This reorganisation of functional structure is termed neural plasticity, and it drives the acquisition of new skills, recovery from injury, and other processes (Wan and Schlaug, 2010)). Interestingly, this unique ability can be used to explain how music-making fundamentally rewires the brain and may even prevent aging-related cognitive decline. 

Playing a musical instrument, regardless of the type of instrument, places a host of complex demands on the nervous system. First, the brain must process musical notation and then translate it into sequential, bimanual motor activity (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). Secondly, extremely fast and fine motor skills are required to actuate a response to the information retrieved and processed from the song’s musical notation (Globerson and Nelken, 2013). To cope with these demands, the brain can change its functional structure, thus enabling the neural networks operating to better process and respond to similar stimuli in the future. 

The effect of music-making on the brain’s structure can be determined by analysing the results of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. While it is difficult to draw conclusions from cross-sectional studies due to their being performed at an instant in time rather than over a prolonged period, these studies nonetheless provide a sound foundation for understanding the association between music-making and the plasticity of the brain (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). For example, multiple studies reported that compared to non-musicians, musicians have a larger anterior corpus callosum, a part of the brain responsible for communication across the brain’s hemispheres (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). Interhemispheric communication is the basis for executing complex bimanual motor sequences, allowing musicians to meet the intense demands required when playing an instrument (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). Furthermore, studies also reported that the size of the primary motor cortex, determined by measuring the depth of the central sulcus, had a positive correlation with the onset of instrumental musical training at an early age (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). 

Unfortunately, cross-sectional studies fail to account for whether the differences in brain organisation between musicians and non-musicians are due to pre-existing differences rather than musical training (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). This possibility was investigated by Norton et al. by comparing the brain organisation of 5- to 7-year-old children before the start of instrumental musical lessons with that of a control group matched on age, socioeconomic status, and IQ (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). The study reported that there were no differences in brain structure between the control and experimental group, essentially implying that no musical biomarkers exist in the human genome; thus, the differences observed in brain structure between musicians and non-musicians are due to prolonged practise and learning (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). This is further supported by a longitudinal study organised by Hyde et al. which examined the structural brain changes of 6-year-old children after receiving musical training for 15 months. It was observed that the precentral gyrus, the corpus callosum, and the Heschl gyrus, all of which are associated with the execution of motor and auditory tasks, experienced changes in structure (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). Thus, these results reinforce the strong correlation that exists between music-making and the effects it produces on the brain’s organisation.

Although the brain remains plastic throughout its lifespan, the inevitable process of aging causes brain tissue loss and therefore, loss of neural plasticity (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). For example, it has been demonstrated that in adulthood, the synaptic density of neural networks is 60% of the maximum density achieved during development; multiple studies have also demonstrated that motor performance, reaction time, speed of movement, and other important motor skills decline due to the degeneration of brain tissue by aging (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). However, when examining the grey matter volume of adult practising musicians and non-musicians, a study by Sluming et al. found that practising musicians have greater grey matter volume in the left inferior frontal gyrus than matched non-musicians (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). Furthermore, whilst non-musicians experienced loss of total brain volume in regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and left inferior frontal gyrus, practising musicians experienced no loss in brain volume (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). These results suggest that musicians are less prone to age-associated brain tissue loss than non-musicians, indicating music-making as a potential treatment in minimising age-related cognitive decline.

Music-making could be applied as a treatment in minimising age-related cognitive decline due to its high demand for cognitive, multisensory and motor integration (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). This is demonstrated by an experimental study performed by Bugos et al. which investigated whether playing music could provide cognitive benefits to musically uneducated elderly volunteers (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). Whilst the experimental group was given a half-hour lesson and required to practise individually for at least 3 hours each week over a 6-month timeframe, the control group received no lessons or requirements (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). At the end of the experiment, while the control group was reported to have no changes from before, the experimental group experienced heightened memory, motor skills, and perceptual speed (Wan and Schlaug, 2010). These results strongly imply that cognitive function in the elderly can be heightened and maintained through music-making, reducing the risk of age-related cognitive decline and potential development of neurological disorders like dementia.

Playing music is not only a leisurable activity for many, but a testament of the brain’s ability to adapt to various stimuli. Potentially, it can even serve as a treatment in maintaining the brain’s performance despite the inescapable process of aging. 

References: 

  1. Wan, C.Y. and Schlaug, G. (2010). Music Making as a Tool for Promoting Brain Plasticity across the Life Span. The Neuroscientist, [online] 16(5), pp.566–577. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996135/ [Accessed 2 Jun. 2021].
  1. Globerson, E. and Nelken, I. (2013). The neuro-pianist. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 7.
  2. von Bernhardi, R., Bernhardi, L.E. and Eugenín, J. (2017). What Is Neural Plasticity? Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, [online] pp.1–15. Available at: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-319-62817-2_1.

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