Is there a neurological basis for musical expertise?

Learning to play the guitar. Music education and extracurricular lessons. Guitarist

Is there a neurological basis for musical expertise?

Scientists have long speculated about the biological basis for musical expertise. Literature on neuroscience has researched expert behaviour in many fields, including music and the acquisition of musical skills. The essential questions remain— does musical activity increase the activation in a given area or does it decrease, or is there a change in location of the activation due to the activity?

Several studies have demonstrated that playing a musical instrument less to increased cortical representations in the motor cortex of the relevant hand of a musician compared to non-musicians. The representations are specific to the musical used in the musical activity. For example, research shows playing string instruments for right-handed musicians results in an increase in representations of the fingers of the left-hand  (the hand which plays on the fingerboard).

Other research has shown cortical reorganisation is more prominent in musicians who began instrumental lessons at an early age. Mylenation increases are found in the white matter tracts in professional pianists. Most prominent increases are found for those who began their musical studies at an age of 16 years of under.

Musical expertise

Extensive practice leads to greater efficiency and less processing. The activity in the primary auditory cortex of musicians in response to musical tones is twice as large as that of non-musicians. Grey matter volume of the Heschls’ gyrus (a region in the primary auditory cortex) is shown to be up to 130% larger in musicians when compared to non-musicians.

The fact the extensive practice undertaken by musicians will have an effect on brain regions (auditory cortex and motor areas) is not surprising. Changes need to occur at the biological level in the brain when new skills and knowledge is acquired.

What is less understood are the effects of long term memory and the strategies employed by experts in their learning. Is it the strategy employed which precipitates these neurological changes? Is it the effect of the structures developed for long term memory storage of new skills, retrieval and reorganisation in working-memory, which necessitates the changes at the neurological level? These are questions still to be answered in the development of musical expertise.


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