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University Relations
800 Hotz Hall
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72701

FAX 479.575.4745


FOR RELEASE: Thursday, January 31, 2008

Research Suggests Experience, Not Genetics, Affects Musicians’ Brain Responses

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, University of Arkansas
Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, University of Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – By looking at brains listening to Bach, Elizabeth Margulis, a music cognition researcher, has found evidence to support one side in a long-running debate among musicians. Practice, training and experience, it appears, are what develop a musician’s ear, not genetic predisposition.

Margulis, an assistant professor of music at the University of Arkansas, collaborated with Patrick C.M. Wong and colleagues from Northwestern University in using functional MRI to examine the effect of experience with a type of music on listeners’ neural responses to the music. In the current issue of Human Brain Mapping, the researchers reported that trained musicians had more extensive and complex neural responses to music played on their instrument of expertise than on another instrument.

Highly trained classical musicians, who played either the flute or the violin, listened to two familiar Bach partitas, one for flute and the other for violin. While the MRI scanned and recorded brain activity, the musicians listened to short excerpts from each partita; that is, they listened to familiar classical music played by their instrument of expertise and by another instrument.

“The difference between the two groups should be minimal,” Margulis said. “Both have a lot of experience with classical music – listening, playing and evaluating.”

Other studies have contrasted the brain responses of musicians with those of non-musicians, but those studies leave open the possibility of genetic predisposition as an explanation for differences.

“By contrasting two instrumentalist subgroups, we make the ‘genetic predisposition’ explanation less likely and strengthen the case for training,” Margulis said.

If neural sensitivity is related to innate musical talent, irrespective of the instrument played, then the researchers would expect to see all classical musicians engage a brain network specific to classical music or a brain network specific to the particular instrument, regardless of expertise.

Yet, the musicians showed significantly different responses to different instruments. When the violinists listened to the violin and the flutists listened to the flute, they engaged many more areas of the brain -- areas related to sense of self, to motor control and to suppression of unwanted movements.

“Musicians brought a special network of responses to music they had had specific experiences with,” Margulis said. “Because this specific experience includes experience producing the sound, not just listening to it, and experience evaluating it, musicians are particularly invested in assessing the quality of performances on their instrument. Some of the brain activation suggests that they could detect more subtle differences in sound when listening to their instrument of expertise.”

The findings have implications for how we teach and perform music. Given her research, Margulis asks how people who are not professionals can have more connection to music. The flutists and the violinists are profoundly connected to music. Margulis pointed out that the protocols for classical music prize passivity -- concert audiences are expected to sit quietly and listen without tapping feet or humming along.

“Perhaps musical experience needs to be less passive and more active,” Margulis said. “Perhaps we need to connect music more with other domains of activity.”

Margulis is on the faculty of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. Her research was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Co-authors from Northwestern University were Lauren M. Misna, Ajith K. Uppunda, Todd B. Parrish and Patrick C.M. Wong. The article is titled “Selective Neurophysiologic Responses to Music in Instrumentalists with Different Listening Biographies.”



Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, assistant professor, music
J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences
(479) 575-5763, ehm@uark.edu

Barbara Jaquish, science and research communications officer
University Relations
(479) 575-2683, jaquish@uark.edu