The Musician's Brain

(First published April 1, 2009)

There has been a good deal of research done on music and the brain, some of which is described in recent books such as Daviel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. The areas of the brain involved in processing music are well understood, and anatomical differences in the brains of musicians and non-musicians have been described. Far less research has been done on what happens within the brains of musicians while they are performing. One reason for this is no doubt due to a practical difficulty — pianos and guitars don’t fit into MRI instruments. However, a few recent studies that examine the brains of musicians provide some interesting insights.

Only one of these studies examines the brains of musicians while they are actually playing. Charles Limb of the NIH and Alan Braun of Johns Hopkins University devised an experiment that would allow them to see changes in activation of specific brain regions in experienced jazz musicians in the act of improvisation. They were interested in determining if particular patterns of neural activity were associated with spontaneous musical performance. They used functional MRI (fMRI), a non-invasive technique that measures blood flow to different areas in the brain. They contrasted what they observed when the musicians improvised with what happened when they played memorized musical passages.

They found that improvisation involved a deactivation of some brain regions and an activation of others. Specifically, the areas deactivated were those typically involved in self-monitoring and self-evaluation, while areas activated were those that play a role in self-expression and the creation of internally-motivated, stimulus-independent behaviors. It appears that these musicians were shutting down regions that would inhibit the free, creative, uncensored expression of musical ideas. This certainly makes sense — experienced improvisors would have to have this ability, to allow the free flow of creativity — but it’s remarkable that it can actually be observed at the level of blood flow within the brain. It would be interesting to know whether musicians who are less experienced or less effective at improvisation would show this same pattern.

Another interesting recent study was performed by Elizabeth Margulis and colleagues at the University of Arkansas. Rather than observing actual performance, they used fMRI to examine neural responses when musicians listened to music played on their own particular instrument of expertise, or on another instrument. The study was designed to explore whether extensive experience playing a particular instrument — in this case, either violin or flute — affects the neural response when listening to music played on that instrument.

They found that musicians had more extensive and complex neural responses to music played on their instrument compared to music performed on another instrument. Brain areas activated under these circumstances include those related to sense of self, motor control and the suppression of unwanted movements. Margulis is quoted as saying that “some of the brain activation suggests that they could detect more subtle differences in sound when listening to their instrument of expertise.” These findings are perhaps not unexpected, but they do highlight just how engaged the brain becomes when hearing music that one has a long, intimate, physical connection with. And they suggest that the response is learned — an innate ability to process music in this way would not likely be instrument-specific.

And finally, another recent study looked at musicians’ brains while performing non-musical activities. A team at Vanderbilt University used near infrared spectroscopy to monitor blood flow to cortical regions when individuals — either musicians or non-musicians — were given problems to solve that required creative thinking. They found that, compared to non-musicians, musicians showed a greater capacity for creative, or “divergent,” thinking, and observed a greater degree of bilateral frontal cortical activity while problem-solving — that is, musicians showed more use of both hemispheres. One of the researchers, Bradely Folley, said that “there seems to be a qualitative difference in how [musicians] think about this information.” An interesting question that arises from this study is the origin of this difference: are people with this bilateral pattern more likely to become musicians, or does long experience with the highly complex activity of making music train the brain to adopt a bilateral approach to problem-solving?


The study on neural activity when listening to different instruments is described in Margulis, E.H. et al. (2009). Selective neurophysiologic responses to music in instrumentalists with different listening biographies. Human Brain Mapping 30:267-275. Further information can be found in a news account at the University of Arkansas web site.

The research on brain regions active during jazz improvisation was published in Limb, C.J. and Braun, A.R. (2008) Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679.

The study on cortical activity patterns during problem-solving can be found in Gibson, C., Folley, B.S., and Park, S. (2009) Enhanced divergent thinking and creativity in musicians: A behavioral and near-infrared spectroscopy study. Brain and Cognition 69:162-169. An account of the research can also be found at

John Olson