A researcher at the University of Arkansas has sufficient evidence to prove that a musician's brain responses are affected by practice and training rather than by genetic disposition.
Elizabeth Margulis, an assistant professor of music, collaborated with Patrick C.M. Wong and colleagues from Northwestern University for examining the effect of experience with a type of music on listeners' neural responses to the music. The researchers used functional MRI in their study.
Writing about their findings in Human Brain Mapping, the researchers said that trained musicians had more extensive and complex neural responses to music played on their instrument of expertise than on another instrument.
Highly trained classical musicians, who played either the flute or the violin, were made to hear two familiar Bach partitas—one for flute and the other for violin.
The MRI scanned and recorded brain activity as the musicians listened to familiar classical music played by their instrument of expertise and by another instrument.
'The difference between the two groups should be minimal. Both have a lot of experience with classical music - listening, playing and evaluating,' Margulis said.
While other studies have contrasted the brain responses of musicians with those of non-musicians, they leave open the possibility of genetic predisposition as an explanation for differences.
'By contrasting two instrumentalist subgroups, we make the 'genetic predisposition' explanation less likely and strengthen the case for training,' Margulis said.
She revealed that the musicians involved in the study showed significantly different responses to different instruments. When the violinists listened to the violin, or the flutists listened to the flute, they engaged many more areas of the brain—areas related to sense of self, to motor control and to suppression of unwanted movements.
'Musicians brought a special network of responses to music they had had specific experiences with. Because this specific experience includes experience producing the sound, not just listening to it, and experience evaluating it, musicians are particularly invested in assessing the quality of performances on their instrument. Some of the brain activation suggests that they could detect more subtle differences in sound when listening to their instrument of expertise,' Margulis said.
The findings have implications for how we teach and perform music. Given her research, Margulis asks how people who are not professionals can have more connection to music.
The flutists and the violinists are profoundly connected to music. Margulis pointed out that the protocols for classical music prize passivity—concert audiences are expected to sit quietly and listen without tapping feet or humming along.
'Perhaps musical experience needs to be less passive and more active. Perhaps we need to connect music more with other domains of activity,' she said.