Scans of the brains of child musicians before and after musical training have yielded compelling evidence that proficiency and skill relies on hard graft, not innate genius.
Earlier studies have shown that adult musicians have different brains to adult non-musicians. But the latest results settle arguments about whether the brain differences were there from birth, or developed through practice.
“This is the first paper showing differential brain development in children who learned and played a musical instrument versus those that did not,” says Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard Medical School.
Schlaug’s team tested musically untrained six-year-olds from the Boston area, 15 of whom then received weekly keyboard lessons for 15 months, and 16 of whom didn’t. When they compared magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans taken before and after for both groups, they found that auditory and motor areas of the brain linked respectively with hearing and dexterity grew larger only in the trainee musicians.
At the end of the training period, the musicians also outperformed the others at specific tasks related to manual dexterity and discrimination of sounds. But the two groups were matched on more distantly related skills such as arithmetic. Schlaug says that the same pupils are being followed in case it takes longer for these more “distant” skills to emerge.
Other researchers welcomed the findings. “This study shows, through a ‘before and after’ design, that a particular set of learning activities is both the necessary and sufficient causal explanation for resulting differences in brain characteristics,” says John Sloboda of Keele University in the UK, and a long-time champion of practice over genius.
Like muscle, brain tissue can change with “exercise”, he claims, so a valid new question is whether the changes would reverse without practice.
Eleanor Maguire of University College London says it would be interesting to find out if the changes occur in adult musical trainees. In 2000, Maguire’s scans of the brains of London cabbies showed they had abnormally large hippocampi, the area of the brain vital for navigation.
By Andy Coghlan
Journal reference: The Journal of Neuroscience