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The Musical Brain Sees Faster

musical notesIt may come as no surprise that the amount of practice that goes into learning to play a musical instrument leads to lasting changes in the brain. Once an individual has learned to play music, it becomes more effortless. However, two members of the NSF-funded Temporal Dynamics Learning Center were surprised by exactly how much of the brain becomes engaged in the simple act of perceiving a single note, especially in advanced musicians.

Dr. Isabel Gauthier and her graduate student Yetta Wong used brain imaging to measure brain activity while people with varying degrees of musical experience (from none to extensive) made simple judgments about notes, letters and other shapes, shown one at a time on a computer screen. The study found that in individuals who could read musical notation, several brain areas were found to be more engaged for notes than for other images. This result was much more pronounced in expert musicians compared to those with little or no musical experience.

Several of these brain areas were not visual, but rather motor or auditory, suggesting that seeing a single note is sufficient to recruit a wide network of brain areas that have been specialized by the multifaceted experience of learning to translate notes into music. Finally, the researchers were able to demonstrate that activity in several of these non-visual regions of the brain could be used to predict performance on a test outside of the scanner that measured how fast participants could perceive note sequences. This suggests that visual judgments in experts may be performed by a distributed network of areas that have been fine-tuned by a rich learning experience. The work may lead to the development of multimodal training protocols to improve expert performance.



Wong, Y.K. Gauthier, I. (2010). A multimodal neural network recruited by expertise with musical notation, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(4): 695-713.

Wong, Y.K., Gauthier, I. (in press). Holistic processing of musical notation: Dissociating failures of selective attention in experts and novices. Cognitive and Affective Behavioral Neuroscience.