Neuroscience has become very interested in music, specifically the piano. Scientists want to understand more about playing music, listening to music, and learning music. With modern imaging technology, we can access information and data that help explain questions like:
- WHY we approach music like we do?
- HOW music affects our bodies and our minds?
- WHAT habits musicians can adopt to learn music with pleasure and efficiency?
We will be getting to these questions in later articles. For now, let’s get into why the science of the brain and nervous system—neuroscience—loves to look at music, and why the piano has become such an important instrument for these studies.
Music and neuroscience
Some neuroscientists, such as Michael Trimble and Dale Hesdorffer, contend that playing and listening to music is not only a uniquely human activity; it is also an important part of our development as a species and has helped us grow into our humanity. This is because music involves the brain’s many parts in complex and intertwined ways.
Music brings out our emotions. It makes us dance and move. It stimulates our memories and coordinates us socially, in a band if we’re musicians, in an audience if we’re listening.
Accordingly, affective neuroscience studies how the brain processes emotion; kinetic neuroscience studies how the brain manages movement; and cognitive neuroscience involves understanding how memory and society affects and our affected by the brain.
The list goes on. Name a branch of neuroscience and, odds are, music is involved somehow. In fact, music—the playing of it, the listening to it—influences the brain so much and in so many areas that some scientists (such as Glaser and Schlaug) go so far to say that “brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians.”
There’s so much music out there, though. What kind of music are these scientists listening to?
The piano is universal
There are thousands of different musical instruments in the world and hundreds of different styles and genres. For the purposes of finding music that has a global reach, that is immediately identifiable, and that many people have already experienced, only one instrument rises to the occasion: the piano.
There are many reasons for the piano’s importance!
For centuries, young students have begun their musical training with the piano. The range and volume of the instrument help it perform in solo, ensemble, and orchestral settings. Composers favour the instrument for making new music, and virtuosos admire its expressive capability. The instrument has a long and important history, and not only in classical music but in jazz, the blues, pop music and more. Music conservatories often require piano skills for admission.
But most of all, people around the world love the piano’s sound.
Besides the universality of the piano, there’s another reason why this instrument is so well suited for the purposes of neuroscience.
The piano is reliable
The scientific method relies on repeatability. For results to be accurate and precise, experiments must yield the same results when repeated.
This is another reason why the piano finds its way into studies about how the human brain works: the same scientific method produced the modern piano.
Throughout European music history, tuning systems were erratic and unreliable. The emergence of the modern piano in 1698 introduced an instrument that helped solidify reliable tunings with precision. With time, other musicians playing other instruments tuned themselves to the piano.
Since the invention of digital pianos and electric keyboards, the instruments have become even more precise. For the scientist closely analyzing music and music performance, the piano is an obvious choice: K. Anders Ericsson in “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” refers to pianists explicitly.
The bottom line
Neuroscience is confirming what humans have suspected for a long time: music is a total experience that enriches all aspects of life.
More than that, the piano is the perfect instrument to tap into and to measure this total experience.
But reading is one thing!—trying for yourself is another. Get started today.
- Trimble, Michael & Dale Hesdorffer. “Music and the brain: the neuroscience of music and musical appreciation.”
- Gaser, Christian & Gottfried Schlaug. “Brain Structures Differ Between Musicians and Non-Musicians.”
- Ericsson, K. Anders. “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.”