Musicians, Regardless of Innate Pitch Ability, Have More Connected Brains than Non-Musicians: Study

A new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that long-term musical training is associated with robust changes in large-scale brain networks.

Increased subnetworks in absolute pitch musicians compared to non-musicians obtained in the whole-brain network-based statistic (NBS) analysis for resting-state functional connectivity (A) and diffusion weighted imaging (DWI)-based structural connectivity (B). Abbreviations: ACC – anterior cingulate cortex; AP – absolute pitch; aSMG – anterior supramarginal gyrus; aSTG – anterior superior temporal gyrus; cOp – central operculum; fOp – frontal operculum; FP – frontal pole; HG – Heschl’s gyrus; IFG, po – inferior frontal gyrus, pars opercularis; L – left; MTG – middle temporal gyrus; PCC – posterior cingulate cortex; postCG – postcentral gyrus; preCG – precentral gyrus; pSTG – superior temporal gyrus, posterior division; pOp – parietal operculum; PP – planum polare; PT – planum temporale; ptFG – posterior temporal fusiform gyrus; R – right; toFG – temporal occipital fusiform gyrus; TP – temporal pole. Image credit: Leipold et al., doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1985-20.2020.

Professional musicians are a popular model for investigating experience-dependent plasticity in human large-scale brain networks.

A minority of musicians — with Mozart and Michael Jackson in their ranks — possess absolute pitch, the ability to name a tone without reference. But, it remains unclear how this ability impacts the brain.

In the new research, Dr. Simon Leipold of Stanford University and colleagues compared the brains of professional musicians to non-musicians.

The study involved 153 female and male human participants: 52 absolute pitch musicians, 51 non-absolute pitch musicians, and 50 non-musicians.

To the team’s surprise, there were no strong differences between the brains of musicians with and without absolute pitch ability; instead absolute pitch may shape the brain in more subtle ways.

Compared to non-musicians, both types of musicians had stronger functional connectivity — the synchronized activity of brain regions — in the auditory regions of both brain hemispheres.

Musicians also had stronger white matter connections between auditory regions and lobes involved in various types of high-level processing.

Musicians that began their training at a younger age had stronger structural connections than musicians with a later start.

These results demonstrate how experience shapes the brain, especially early in life, and how enhanced musical skills are represented in our brain.

“We identified robust and replicable effects of musical expertise on intrinsic functional and structural brain networks,” the researchers said.

“As effects were stronger in the functional domain, we hypothesize that musical training particularly affects functional compared to structural networks.”

“The effects of absolute pitch on large-scale brain networks might be subtle, requiring very large samples or task-based experiments to be detected.”


Simon Leipold et al. Musical expertise shapes functional and structural brain networks independent of absolute pitch ability. Journal of Neuroscience, published online January 25, 2021; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1985-20.2020

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