How Playing an Instrument Affects Your Brain

  • Published17 Nov 2020
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  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Playing a musical instrument is the brain equivalent of a full-body workout. Unlike other brain-training activities like chess and sudoku, playing an instrument recruits almost every part of the brain, including regions that process vision, sound, movement, and memory.

This video is from the 2020 Brain Awareness Video Contest.

Created by Sujan Vijayraj Shadrak

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There are over 1500 instruments in the world and millions of people who play them but how do these instruments affect our brain? Working out and exercising is key to having a healthy body, but to have a healthy mind, playing an instrument is almost like a whole-body workout for your brain.

First, let’s see how playing an instrument is different from other forms of brain training. Playing an instrument turns on basically every single area of the brain simultaneously, especially the visual, auditory, and motor areas. Unlike brain games, playing a musical instrument is a very rich and complex experience. This is because it’s using information from the senses of vision, hearing, and touch, along with fine movements. This can result in long-lasting positive changes in the brain.

Many brain scans have been able to identify the difference in the brain structure between musicians and non-musicians, especially in the corpus callosum, a massive bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two sides of the brain, which is larger in musicians. One study showed that children who do 15 months of musical training displayed more powerful structural and functional brain changes than children who did not do that training.

One area where most of these structural and functional changes occur is in the hippocampus, a major area of the brain involved in mainly learning and memory. A process that is important for learning and memory in the hippocampus is neurogenesis — the formation of new neurons. Due to this, musical practice may enhance neurogenesis linked to improved learning and memory activity.

As a musician plays a musical instrument, motor systems in the brain control movements needed to produce sound. This sound is processed by auditory circuitry, which can adjust signaling by the motor control centers. Sensory information from the fingers and hands is also sent to the brain. If the musician is reading sheet music, visual information is sent to the brain for interpreting commands from the motor centers.

The white matter in the brain is made up of myelin. In this study, a form of MRI known as structural MRI was used by doctors to find the amount of “white matter” found in the brains of musicians who play piano on a regular basis. The findings from this study show that practicing the piano is an effective way to enhance the structure of white matter.

As Albert Einstein said, “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music.” And as a person who plays three musical instruments, I advise you to play one as well. Thank you so much for watching this video and I hope you enjoyed.