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Musical Experience Benefits Brain Function

NSF Award:

Contributions of Subcortical and Cortical Circuitries in Complex Auditory Learning  (Northwestern University)

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Lifelong musical experience enhances how the brain encodes music, speech and audiovisual interaction. With NSF support, Nina Kraus and her colleagues at Northwestern University, along with Finnish collaborator Mikko Sams, have found that musicians have specialized neural systems for processing sight and sound. Musicians show specialized activity in the cortex and brainstem (the neural gateway to the brain). This ancient part of the brain was previously thought to be relatively unmalleable; however, Kraus's research indicates that music, a high-order cognitive process, affects automatic processing. Moreover, Kraus and colleagues observed that cortical and brainstem function are linked, lending further support to the idea that experiences which engage cortical activity, such as language and music, can fundamentally shape sub-cortical sensory circuitry.

While it is likely that individuals with better inherent auditory function may be drawn to music, Kraus and her team also found that sensory enhancement in musicians is related to the extent of musical experience. For example, the longer someone has played music or the earlier in life that training began, the greater the enhancement. Music, then, may be the driving force behind the observed neural changes.

Image

  • Photo of girl playing the piano with sheetmusic in background
Musicians show specialized activity in the cortex and brainstem (the neural gateway to the brain). This ancient part of the brain was previously thought to be relatively unmalleable; however, research indicates that music, a high-order cognitive process, affects automatic processing.
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