Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Brain plasticity induced by musical training.

As a lifelong pianist, I have always regarded with awe pianists like Horowitz and Rubenstein who have continued to perform into into their advanced old age. I have done some 4 hands recitals here in my winter nest of Fort Lauderdale with an 87-year old retired music professor and performer who still gives solo concerts. Musical performance makes very complex demands on visual, auditory, and motor processing. Numerous studies have shown that subcortical and cortical brain regions can change with musical training. Hernholz and Zatorre offer a massive review of musical training as a framework for brain plasticity in a recent issue of Neuron. I can't even begin to summarize the abundant material presented and offer only the abstract and one sample figure here (motivated readers can request a PDF of the article from me.)
Musical training has emerged as a useful framework for the investigation of training-related plasticity in the human brain. Learning to play an instrument is a highly complex task that involves the interaction of several modalities and higher-order cognitive functions and that results in behavioral, structural, and functional changes on time scales ranging from days to years. While early work focused on comparison of musical experts and novices, more recently an increasing number of controlled training studies provide clear experimental evidence for training effects. Here, we review research investigating brain plasticity induced by musical training, highlight common patterns and possible underlying mechanisms of such plasticity, and integrate these studies with findings and models for mechanisms of plasticity in other domains.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge). Interindividual Differences in Auditory Cortical Structure and Function(A) Variability in auditory cortex gray matter concentration and cortical thickness predicted performance on a melodic transposition task (adapted from Foster and Zatorre, 2010).(B) Different rates of behavioral improvement during pitch memory training were accompanied by differential training-related functional changes in secondary auditory areas (adapted from Gaab et al., 2006).(C) BOLD signal covariation to increasing pitch size in microtonal melodies prior to training in both left and right auditory cortices was predictive of the speed with which learning occurred, such that those individuals who subsequently learned more quickly had an initially steeper response function (adapted from Zatorre et al., in press).


  1. I recently watched "The Last Romantic," the documentary on Horowitz released in November 1985, and thus probably filmed when Horowitz was 81. The brilliance and ease of his playing is extraordinary (even more so than in "Horowitz in Moscow" from the following year), as is his memory, as he plays bits of a wide range of pieces to illustrate as he is chatting. Well worth watching, including the outtakes. One of the outtakes, Moszkowski's Etude in F Major, op. 72 no. 6, especially came to mind when I read your post. Many 25-year-olds would kill to be able to play the piece like this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLqkoCS-RP4

  2. Wow, that Horowitz recording is really something.