Evidence has accumulated during the last couple of decades that musical training shapes the brain in many ways. For instance, since playing a musical instrument requires accurate sound processing and control of movement, musicians’ brains appear to devote more resources to sound processing and motor functions and the integration of the two. Playing music from notes also requires a close interplay between visual and auditory processing. Therefore, might musical training also enhance the brain’s ability for audiovisual integration, the combining of sound and sight?
A recent study by Evangelos Paraskevopoulos and colleagues took a novel approach to investigating this issue. In the study, musicians and non-musicians heard short melodies and were shown squares on a screen that represented the height of each tone, such that the higher the pitch, the higher the position of the square on the screen. Occasionally, this rule was violated so that the height of the pitch of the sound and the position of the square on the screen did not match. The task of the subjects was to indicate by pressing a button, whether the visual and auditory stimuli were congruent or not, while their brain activity was measured with magnetoencephalography (MEG).
MEG enabled the study’s authors to measure something called functional connectivity from the participants’ brain activity. Functional connectivity basically refers to the degree to which the time course of activity in one brain area resembles the time course of the activity in other brain regions. This analysis can reveal networks of coherent brain activity that can be visualized as maps of connections across distributed areas within the brain.
What did the study find? The results revealed that, when compared to the non-musicians, the musicians showed greater connectivity between many brain regions including areas that are important for auditory processing. The non-musicians in turn showed activity in a network of brain areas known to be important for processing the location of visual objects. The results suggest that musicians rely more on auditory information, while non-musicians rely on visual information for processing and integrating audiovisual information. More generally, the study suggests that music training can reorganize cortical networks.
This study further adds to the evidence that links musical expertise with altered brain function. Future longitudinal studies using the same methods could help identify how specialized, functional brain networks emerge with accumulating musical training.
written by ketki karanam
Paraskevopoulos, E., Kraneburg, A., Herholz, S. C., Bamidis, P. D., & Pantev, C. (2015). Musical expertise is related to altered functional connectivity during audiovisual integration. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 112(40), 12522–12527. doi:10.1073/pnas.1510662112