Which is more demanding for the brain?
“The ability to learn piano can be traced to the brain that originally thought of music as our language,” says Rene Pappalardo, head of the department of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the director of the Center for Neuroscience in Music Research.
Pappalardo used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of two pianists: David R. Loeffler, an American player, and the renowned Hungarian composer Janos Károlyi.
The researchers found that the brains of Loeffler’s student were wired differently to those of Károlyi’s.
For instance, Loeffler’s student had smaller volume in the anterior cingulate, parts of the brain involved in emotion and memory. The prefrontal cortex, an area that helps control executive function and reasoning, had smaller volume in this region.
“We’re seeing differences in the cortical thickness of the left inferior parietal lobe,” explains Pappalardo, who hopes his research will lead to brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that allow for “enhanced learning of music.”
In a separate study, Pappalardo scanned the brains of seven concert pianists, nine violinists and five cellists, all of whom had similar levels of playing experience. He compared them to five violinists, six cellists, four pianists and two pianists and found that all three groups performed much better on a test designed to measure how well a musician can integrate auditory information into working memory.
“The violin students in our study performed best on the spatial working memory task, which means that they were able to understand the relationships between musical sounds and spaces on the screen. Their brain structure and connectivity were more similar to that of the cellists and cellists than the other three student participants,” Pappalardo says.
“The cellists and cellists seemed very similar to one another, even though they were playing the same music: They just played differently,” Pappalardo says.
Both of Pappalardo’s studies find that the brain responds to music differently depending on the level of experience. The way a person thinks, thinks, and works about music depends on how well a person has learned the language of music or how well the person learned the language of the piano, according to Pappalardo.
Musicians are able to produce sounds that are highly varied
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