By looking at brains listening to Bach, Elizabeth Margulis, a music cognition researcher, has found evidence to support one side in a long-running debate among musicians. Practice, training and experience, it appears, are what develop a musician’s ear, not genetic predisposition.
Margulis, an assistant professor of music, Patrick C.M. Wong and colleagues from Northwestern University used functional MRI to examine the effect of experience with a type of music on listeners’ neural responses to the music. The researchers found that trained musicians had more extensive and complex neural responses to music played on their instrument of expertise than on another instrument.
Highly trained classical musicians, who played either the flute or the violin, listened to two familiar Bach partitas, one for flute and the other for violin. While the MRI scanned and recorded brain activity, the musicians listened to short excerpts from each partita.
If neural sensitivity is related to innate musical talent, irrespective of the instrument played, then the researchers would expect to see all classical musicians engage a brain network specific to classical music or a brain network specific to the particular instrument, regardless of expertise.
Yet, the musicians showed significantly different responses to different instruments. When
the violinists listened to the violin and the flutists listened to the flute, they engaged many more areas of the brain — areas related to sense of self, to motor control and to suppression of unwanted movements.
“Musicians brought a special network of responses to music they had had specific experiences with,” Margulis said. “Because this specific experience includes experience producing the sound, not just listening to it, and experience evaluating it, musicians are particularly invested in assessing the quality of performances on their instrument.”
The research appeared in the journal Human Brain Mapping.