Musicians’ brains are different. So what?

An interesting article at
(the online
home of the American Music Center) talks about the keynote speech that
neurologist Oliver Sacks gave at Chamber Music America:

At last week’s Chamber Music America conference, keynote speaker Oliver Sacks brought up an astonishing fact: Musicians, he noted, have recognizably different brain functions than non-musicians. This is something that has interested me for a while, and it’s noted in every book on music and the brain that I’ve read recently. However, Sacks also said that there is nothing comparable with painters and writers; they have the same neurological organization as those who do not share their abilities. The implications of this are fascinating.

Much sweat and ink has been spilled over the perceived lack of interest in classical/new/art/experimental music for decades now. But what if it is this profound effect that music has on the plasticity of our brains that is primarily responsible for this? It has the potential to explain why, as many have noted, works by abstract visual artists still have the potential to captivate a wide audience, yet comparable aural offerings are enjoyed by only a handful. It indicates that our visual appreciation of the arts is more innate, more primal, while our appreciation of music is irretrievably affected by our own abilities.

… If there is an actual neurological difference in the perception of music between its most dedicated practitioners and those who are only listeners, then it would be akin to a difference in color perception between painters and museumgoers. This gap between musician and non-musician has widened through normal social development, without it being the fault of any particular group. But what is there to be done about it?

For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results. … This essentially leaves me stumped. So, rather than shedding tears over the comparatively small number of people who understand what I do, what many of us do, I find it much more fulfilling and constructive to focus on and take pleasure in the community that shares my neurological organization.

Wrong conclusion, but then, as they say in the computer biz, garbage in, garbage out.

The idea that musicians’ brains are wired differently in some ways is neither interesting nor significant (except to neurologists). It’s not interesting because it’s precisely what one would expect from everything we know about the evolution of brains, and it’s not significant because there’s zero evidence that it means anything beyond that musicians play musical instruments and non-musicians… don’t.

Brains have evolved to do three things: maintain physiological homeostasis, monitor the external environment, and direct the organism’s movements so as to respond to threats and opportunities in that environment. Human brains are no better than any others at doing the first, and arguably not the second either. But, when responding to external threats and opportunities, our brains have evolved to handle two extraordinary evolutionary adaptations: speech and the manipulation of tools.

(This is not to say that other species can’t communicate or manipulate tools. Many species – including bees – can communicate critical information, and a few species can use tools in a simple way. But no other species has speech as remotely complex as human speech, nor the generalized ability to wield a wide range of implements –  much less create them.)

These facts have many consequences. One is that brains aren’t just wet and gooey general-purpose CPUs; rather they are collections of modules. Some modules do homeostasis, some do sensory processing, some do motor control. The most recent modules – the ones that allow us to speak and to think abstractly –are also the ones that, by requiring such a large head, make birth such an uncomfortable process for both parties.

Another consequence is that some behaviors are easier to learn than others. Chimps can’t talk not because they’re stupid – they’re a lot smarter than we are when faced with a jungle – but because they don’t have the wiring for it. We can do some very advanced things because we do. We can walk, we can throw objects accurately, we can string thoughts together to form conclusions, because we have the wiring to do such things.

But wiring is not all of destiny. Apes have been taught a form of language – complete with grammar – when the cognitive issues have been separated from actually physically making speech sounds (Koko, who my dad used to enjoy spending time with when they were both at Stanford, is the classic example). And humans are capable of learning behaviors for which there is no specific wiring.

Most such behaviors are basically cognitive, and use the abstract thinking module. In terms of ancient occupations, think about farming. Virtually all of the advances in agriculture – new tools, new hybrids, new irrigation methods – have been a result of abstract thought – the linking together of thoughts in order to form conclusions. Nothing in farming involves physical skills that couldn’t be learned very quickly. Modern occupations are similar. Airline pilots don’t fly with their hands; they fly with their heads. Moving control yokes and levers is trivially easy; knowing when to move them, and how much, is what pilots get paid for. Even occupations that involve fine motor work, such as surgery, are fundamentally cognitive. Surgeons have to learn some manual skills, but none are much more complicated than tying a knot. What makes surgeons great is knowing where to cut, where to sew, and when to stop.

Playing a musical instrument is different. There may be no act as demanding of precise control of small muscle movements, that at the same time is not evolutionarily favored (as is, for example, throwing) as is playing an instrument. And such control is largely non-cognitive. You need proof? Ask a professional violinist to finger with the right hand and bow with the left. In an instant, they are turned into a rank beginner. And it would take them months of work to recapture some portion of their original skill. If the skills involved were primarily cognitive, this shouldn’t be any harder than asking a pilot to fly from the right seat as opposed to the left. Is it surprising that the learning of such precise control of small muscle movements requires re-wiring? It sure doesn’t surprise me.

I can think of only two activities that are similar (although less demanding), and those are handwriting and its modern cousin typing. But virtually everyone can write (and many can type, although not at professional levels), so everyone’s brain is going to have the same wiring changes, which means that researchers will be hard-pressed to detect them. By contrast, relatively few people play instruments proficiently, so that there is a large control population to researchers to use as a base.

An interesting, and unfortunate, corollary to this re-wiring is susceptibility to neurological disorders, in particular focal dystonia. First known as “writer’s cramp,” it appears most prominently in musicians. Pilots don’t get it, farmers don’t get it, surgeons don’t get it – even pitchers don’t get it (although some believe that what golfers call “the yips” is a form of dystonia) – but musicians do. This is a strong indication that something weird happens in brains as a result of developing proficiency on an instrument.

Obviously playing an instrument has a strong cognitive component as well. Reading music, fitting into an ensemble, developing interpretive concepts are all cognitive acts. And none of those skills vanish mysteriously in the same way as dystonia can rob musicians of their physical skills.

Does any of this mean anything beyond playing an instrument? I see no evidence of that. I’d love to believe that instrumentalists were smarter, or better in bed, or kept their hair longer than our non-rewired peers. But it doesn’t appear to be so. Those thousands upon thousands of hours of playing may have rewired our brains – but only those specific modules involved in controlling the muscles involved.

What about composing? As best I can tell, all composers are instrumentalists, so I doubt it’s possible to tease out whether or not composition per se requires rewiring. Unfortunately for our composer friend quoted above, there’s absolutely no evidence that “our appreciation of music is irretrievably affected by our own abilities.” The idea that we should give up on our neurologically unaltered audience because they don’t “share [our] neurological organization” is not only snobbish but is positively stupid.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my orchestra just did a program that included an indubitably contemporary piece written by the neurologically altered John Adams (as well as pieces by the neurologically atypical Mozart and the neurologically and psychologically altered Beethoven). Our audience loved the whole thing.

One of the many things I learned from my father was that science is specific. The Uncertainty Principle is about quantum mechanics, not philosophy. Relativity is about physics, not morality.  And brain rewiring is about muscle control, not artistic appreciation of what kind of music to write or perform.


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