Musician Psychology Accounts for Talent, Success

The Mind of a Rock Star

Fans recognize the unique musical prowess of their favorite artists. It’s easy to believe they operate on a higher artistic wavelength than the average person and possess expansive cognitive and creative abilities. These abilities have produced some of the greatest albums in music history. Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame includes some of the greatest artists who have had a profound impact on music history as well as society and culture. Bob Dylan was considered a wunderkind with the telling release of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in the early 1960s, the 1984 release of “Purple Rain” solidified the musical genius of Prince and Madonna’s diverse and long-lasting career illustrates true musical talent. These Rock and Roll Hall of Famers share the status of musical icons, but psychological science has also shown that they share a similar brain. 

As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame prepares to induct its latest class of musical talent, we examine how the mind of a musician differs from the mind of a non-musician.

Scientific Studies Find Differences in Brains of Musicians and Non-Musicians

Scientists have long aimed to examine the minds of exceptionally talented musicians to identify brain differences that could account for their ability. Understanding the musician’s brain is also important to the study of the brain’s malleability. Scientific study focused on neural plasticity has turned to examining musicians and non-musicians to learn more about the brain’s ability to reorganize and reshape itself with training over time.

Music PsychologyEarly studies utilized post-mortem dissection of human brains to compare and contrast the minds of musicians and non-musicians. At the dawning of the 20th century, Sigmund Auerbach, a German surgeon recognized for his work with the brain, conducted various dissections of famous musicians’ brains to gain a grasp on the differences between musical minds and non-musical minds. Auerbach found that there was a sizeable difference in the two types of brains, specifically in the temporal and parietal areas. Despite his findings, many scientists refuted them because there was not a clear way to make a distinct correlation based on causation. Skeptics argued that a musician’s brain size could be innate rather than developed through environmental enrichment and learning.

In recent times, scientists have utilized complex experimental methodologies to better understand the musician’s mind as well as the brain’s ability to reshape and reorganize in a more in-depth manner. For example, a study of the effects of musical training on verbal memory utilized an experimental group of 10 female college students who had taken piano lessons for more than eight years and a control group of 10 female college students with no musical training. The women were given a random list of 20 words that they were then asked to recall. They were then given the same list of words with an additional set of 20 words and asked to identify which were “old” and which were “new” words. The study was designed to examine the parts of the brain the serve to improve verbal memory with enhanced music memory. The study results found that the experimental group performed better on the verbal memory test, suggesting that long-term musical training can reorganize the brain to gain musical competence and success.

Scientists have also used frequency following response (FFR) experiments to examine the differences in the musician brain and the non-musician brain. An FFR experiment utilizes electrodes that are placed on the scalp to measure response to simple sounds. The FFR experiment gave an inside look into brain activity when sound was present along with its location.

Brain imaging tools such as the MRI have also been employed to garner a three-dimensional picture to help grasp the effects of sound on the brain. Initial results found that a musician’s brain is structurally and cognitively changed through musical training. Musicians have been shown to exhibit increased gray matter in the auditory, motor and visual spatial areas of the cerebral cortex. Studies have also shown that musicians exhibit better musical and verbal memory compared to non-musicians.

Psychological research has shown that musical training can reshape the mind, giving musicians a structurally and cognitively different brain than non-musicians. These findings have gone to support the theory that the brain is flexible and has the ability to reorganize through environmental enrichment and advanced learning and training. Psychologists are able to support the idea that the structural differences in the brain of a musician and the brain of a non-musician are the result of skill acquisition as opposed to musical ability. The idea that the brain can reorganize and reshape through training also serves to give scientists hope when treating patients with brain injuries.

As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame welcomes the likes of Randy Newman, Donna Summer and Public Enemy, psychological studies of the brain allow us to recognize the unique difference between the player and the fan.

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