Science Shows How Piano Players’ Brains Are Actually Different From Everybody Elses’

by JORDAN TAYLOR SLOAN (originally posted @ MIC.COM)

Piano lessons are sort of like braces. For a few years, everyone’s parents paid a lot of money so their children could contort their bodies (fingers; teeth) and lie about doing something daily that, really, they never did (scales; rubber bands). Both were formative experiences.

But while everyone grows out of braces, some people never recover from childhood piano lessons. This is, in part, because true pianists’ brains are actually different from those of everyone else. In this series, we’ve already written about what makes guitarists’ and drummers’ brains unique, but playing keys is an entirely different beast. Drums are functionally pitchless and achordal, so pitch selection and chord voicings aren’t part of the equation. Guitar only allows for six notes at once and heavily favors left-hand dexterity.

But piano is the ultimate instrument in terms of skill and demand: Two hands have to play together simultaneously while navigating 88 keys. They can play up to 10 notes at a time. To manage all those options, pianists have to develop a totally unique brain capacity — one that has been revealed by science.

Because both hands are required to be equally active for pianists’ to master their instrument, they have to overcome something innate to almost every person: right or left-handedness.

In most people, the depth of the brain’s central sulcus is either deeper on the right or on the left side, which then determines which hand is dominant. But when scientists scanned the brains of pianists, they found something different: Pianists had a demonstrably more symmetrical central sulcus than everyone else — though they were born right or left-handed, their brains barely registered it. Because the pianists still had a dominant hand, researchers speculated that their equal depth was not natural, but resulted because pianists are able to strengthen their weaker side to more closely match their dominant side. Rachmaninoff would be proud:

Already, then, pianists are able to make their brains into better-rounded machines. But it turns out the heavy-tax of piano playing makes their minds efficient in every way. A study by Dr. Ana Pinho (whose name kind of explains her research focus) showed that when jazz pianists play, their brains have an extremely efficient connection between the different parts of the frontal lobe compared to non-musicians. That’s a big deal — the frontal lobe is responsible for integrating a ton of information into decision making. It plays a major role in problem solving, language, spontaneity, decision making and social behavior. Pianists, then, tend to integrate all of the brain’s information into more efficient decision making processes. Because of this high speed connection, they can breeze through slower, methodical thinking and tap into quicker and more spontaneous creativity.

Most shockingly, though, Pinho also found that when experienced pianists play, they literally switch off the part of the brain associated with providing stereotypical responses, ensuring that they play with their own unique voice and not the voices of others. Basically, it’s the opposite of Guitar Center riffage — true innovation like Oscar Peterson:

But piano is a taxing and complex instrument for the whole brain. Real pianists are marked by brains that efficiently conserve energy by allocating resources more effectively than anyone else. Dr. Timo Krings scanned pianists’ brains as they soloed and found that they pump less blood than average people in the brain region associated with fine motor skills. Less blood flow means less energy is needed to concentrate. Though that’s likely true of anyone who’s mastered a nimble task, it only compounds the efficiency pianists’ brains develop through mutating the central sulcus and altering their frontal lobe’s function. In pianists, the change in blood flow frees them to concentrate on other things that are totally unique to pianists — like their own unique form of communication.

It’s a difficult concept to grasp, but it’s one of the coolest things about being a pianist. When pianists improvise, the language portion of their brain remains active — like any musician, playing music is fundamentally an act of communication. But the big difference for pianists is that their communication is about syntax, not words. Dr. Charles Limb’s study showed that when pianists solo, their brains respond as if they were responding in a conversation, but they pay attention to phrasing and “grammatical” structure instead of specific words and phrases.

So pianists’ brains actually are different. They are masters of creative, purposeful and efficient communication because of the very instrument that they play. They are the naturally efficient multi-taskers of the musical world, because when you’re a player like Yuja Wang, there is zero room for doubt and hesitation.

Scientific Studies on Animals Reveal Just How Much Music Shapes the Natural World

by JORDAN TAYLOR SLOAN (originally posted @ MIC.COM)

Music seems a more fundamentally human art form than most. It’s home to our most intimate emotions and has such a strong effect on our brain chemistry that it’s addictive. But it isn’t just humans that love music. The science of music’s effect on animals and even plants reveals something startling: It’s not just an art form — it’s essentially a force of nature.

Due in no small part to the frustration of being woken up by an early-rising bird, most of us write off all animal noise as merely irritating. Animals, on the other hand, are empathetic when they listen to cross-species music, and react with emotions and behavior eerily similar to our own. At dog kennels, researchers found that classical music reduced anxiety in the dogs, helping them sleep more and bark less. Heavy metal, on the other hand, made the dogs bark more, sleep less and shake violently, all symptoms of a true metalhead.

Like dogs, cows also prefer classical music, and will shockingly produce more milk when they are listening to slow jams (music under 100 beats per minute) and less milk when listening to fast music (music over 120 beats per minute). But regardless of an increase in milk production, cows are downright curious about human music, no matter if it’s good or bad.

Beyond merely appreciating “human music,” animals can actually identify rhythms and even similarities between songs, letting different kinds of music affect their behavior. One study found that horses can synchronize their pace to the rhythm of music playing in the background, as can sea lions and bonobos. That means that the effect of music runs deeper than just being a pleasant sound

Tamarins, a small monkey in Central and South American rain forests, were actually the first animal studied by researchers to exhibit behavior directly linked to types of music. A cellist teamed up with a psychologist to create four songs modeled off tamarin vocalizations, two mimicking a tamarin’s distress call and two mimicking the safe and calming call. When the team played the distress call compositions, the monkeys displayed signs of distress, such as shaking their heads, sticking out their tongues and looking around. But when the calming numbers were played, they showed clear signs of calming down, even enjoying the music.

Image Credit: Getty

Of course, arguably animals exhibit some other human qualities too. Their taste for music could stem from whatever genetic overlap we find. But the really striking proof that music is something more than a mere human phenomenon comes from the plant world.

Researchers have found that plants grow away from the sound of a chomping caterpillar, and will also grow toward the sound of rushing water. But besides caterpillars and water, music can affect growth in young plants just as it can aid development in human children — and can help farmers and urban gardeners grow bigger crops. Researchers in South Korea found that playing classical music directly triggered growth genes in rice crops. They played Beethoven songs through loudspeakers at rice fields and tracked the results, ruling out light and wind factors and seriously proving that the music was spurring flowering in the rice plants.

It seems clear, then, that music is more of a universal force of expression and care than it is human artifice. That’s the sort of thing that’s intuitive, though, if you take one step beyond Iggy Azalea and look out towards the world. Music is just a relationship between sounds, one that can just as reasonably shape the emotions of humans and animals as it can spur plant growth. We don’t write songs, then; we only ever find them, out and about in the world:

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