Increase your brain’s gray matter with musical training


American Pie by Don McLean (a classic American anthem).

“Bye, bye Miss American Pie….

When the Jester sang for the King and Queen,
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean,
In a voice that came from you and me.
Oh, and while the King was looking down,
The Jester stol’ his thorny crown….”

The jester plays music, sings, and juggles to entertain the court – but at the same time is he getting the best of the deal (see court jester introductory piece)? Music has some very interesting affects on the human brain and the pace of research in this subfield is increasing. This week I will discuss several recent articles about music and the brain – along with juggling.

First off it is thought that learning music involves complex motor and auditory skills (for a very good review see this Nature Neuroscience article) and one of the questions that arises is does this learning result in structural differences between between brains of musicians and non-musicians ?

In a 2003 Journal of Neuroscience paper Gaser and Schlaug reported that professional musicians had increased gray matter volume in motor, auditory and visual-spatial brain regions compared to amateur musicians and non-musicians. Talk about a great brain hack – increased gray matter. Now there is still the open question of were the differences innate (and hence that is why they became professional musicians) or was the differences due to the extensive musical practice. The authors argue that the brain differences between the amateur and professional musicians combined with the obvious difference in overall practice time between these two groups supports their proposal that the brain differences are practice induced not innate differences.

Previous studies had found that degree of these brain regions differences are dependent on how early musical training was started  (Elbert et al., 1995; Hutchinson et al., 2003; Schlaug et al., 1995) – which further supports the above authors hypothesis.

Interestingly, a number of studies have found enhanced non-musical ability in musically trained children and adults which includes: object mental rotation tasks, skills that require visual perception and motor planning, verbal memory, etc. There is even consistent support for the notion that musical training modestly increases IQ (going to avoid the general IQ debate here though) (from the introduction section of Norton et al., 2005). Hence, it appears that consistent musical training has produces a general brain improvement – beyond just increasing your musical skill (nice brain hack).

Less surprising is that musical training increases tapping speed of both the dominant and non-dominant hand (I won’t currently go into why this is interesting but keep this filed in your head – it is related to myelinization).

Now if you are a parent you might be thinking that you better enrol your kids pronto into music training. But there is an open question is there anything particularly special about music or is it any serious long term motor-visual training that will produce similar results. Could traditional sports such as tennis, basketball, hockey, etc produce the same effects. The reason music is likely studied is that musical training is usually year round and done at a consistent manner (e.g 1-2 hours per day) while most other sports are largely done during particular seasons (and might be harder to quantify).  Well I don’t know the exact answer if the normal sports also increase gray matter and function (mainly because they haven’t been studied like music has) however, there were a recent series of studies on learning to juggle and gray matter which I will explore tomorrow.

So tomorrow the court jester will put down his musical instrument and pick up juggling balls for our entertainment  – and education.

But tonight go bang the drum and grow your brain – okay you are going to have to play for more than one night :)

Two teponaztli, Aztec drums. This one was foun...

Aztec drum: Image via Wikipedia

5 comments for “Increase your brain’s gray matter with musical training

  1. :P
    December 1, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    I only scanned through the JNeurosci paper, so I don’t get whether it means increased overall grey matter mass/volume, or increased percentage grey matter volume associated with playing music – ie at the expense of other brain areas?
    You know musicians and artists in general (and of course scientists) are nerdy/weird/sometimes antisocial… so maybe these people have better ‘visual perception and motor planning, verbal memory, etc’, but worse at interacting with people…

  2. Ward
    December 2, 2008 at 9:51 am

    interesting points. My first thought was sure we can increase gray matter without necessarily any loss in structure or function elsewhere – but you are correct there is a finite space in the skull. I will not speculate on artists or scientist being nerdy and having diminished social skills – those are only observations we have all made :)

    However, on a more serious answer – from a paper on juggling induced increase in gray matter ( the authors write this:
    “It has also to be pointed
    out, that an increase in gray matter volume (i.e. a change of the classification of individual voxels from white to gray matter) will prompt an inverse effect (i.e. regionally loss in white matter volume) in adjacent white matter.”

  3. September 10, 2010 at 2:53 am

    hey , what’s up ?
    i’m so glad to meet your perfect web , yes , really i am , you know why ? because i’m actually like you , i have a persian web site that i post something like puzzles and articles about brain , brain health and , brain training and so on
    i know you don’t know anything about persian language ” surely ” , but we know english , so , we can be good friends , can we ? if your answer is yes , send mail