Parents often encourage their kids to pick up a musical instrument, as playing an instrument is thought to have all sorts of positive effects on brain development. Indeed, there is ample evidence from neuroscientific studies that playing a musical instrument for many years can induce long-lasting changes in brain structure.
Already in the 1990s, it was shown that people who play a string instrument (like the violin, cello or guitar) show a larger cortical representation of the digits of their left hand than non-musical controls (Elbert et al., 1995). This is possibly because they have an increased need to make complicated fine motor movements with both hands in order to play difficult songs correctly. Playing the piano also affects brain structure, as it leads to a more symmetrical organization of the motor areas of the brain (Chieffo et al., 2016). Moreover, it has been shown that learning how to read music and play the keyboard leads to changes in the parietal lobe, a part of the brain that is relevant for translating written music into finger movements on the keyboard (Stewart et al., 2003). All of these scientific findings are examples of brain plasticity, the amazing ability of the brain to reorganize itself in order to optimally deal with changes in the environment or difficult tasks that are repeatedly tackled (such as playing a complex composition by Ludwig van Beethoven).
A new study (of which I was one of the co-authors) investigated the effects of playing an instrument that has so far been neglected in scientific studies: The drums (Schlaffke et al., 2019). Not necessarily a favorite instrument for parents all around the globe due to their noise levels, playing the drums properly requires an amazing amount of coordination between the different limbs. The motor coordination of professional drummers far surpasses those of untrained individuals, as they can play different rhythms with the two hands, a task most of us struggle massively with.
In the study, professional drummers with an average drumming experience of 17 years and unmusical controls were tested for their drumming abilities. Not surprisingly, the drummers were much better. Both groups were then investigated using various neuroimaging techniques to investigate the structure of their brains, as well as functional brain activations while doing a motor task (finger tapping).
Drummers showed a clear difference from non-musical controls in the corpus callosum, the big white-matter tract that connects the left and the right halves of the brain. Here, the neuroimaging data suggested that the drummers had fewer but thicker fibers in the front part of the corpus callosum, which is responsible for motor planning. This change in brain structure likely allows the professional drummers to more quickly coordinate motor processes between the two halves of the brain that control the two hands. Importantly, the structure of the corpus callosum also predicted how well the drummer performed in the initial drum test. Last but not least, there was a rather curious finding: The brains of drummers showed less activations during a motor task in the MRI scanner than those of non-musical controls participants. This is likely due to sparse sampling, a phenomenon that is also observed in highly intelligent people: Due to more efficient brain organization in their motor areas, professional drummers need less activation to perform a task than the controls.
Taken together, the study shows once again that playing an instrument can have a profound impact on the brain.
Elbert T, Pantev C, Wienbruch C, Rockstroh B, Taub E. (1995). Increased cortical representation of the fingers of the left hand in string players. Science, 270, 305-357.
Chieffo R, Straffi L, Inuggi A, Gonzalez-Rosa JJ, Spagnolo F, Coppi E, Nuara A, Houdayer E, Comi G, Leocani L. (2016). Motor Cortical Plasticity to Training Started in Childhood: The Example of Piano Players. PLoS One, 11, e0157952.
Schlaffke L, Friedrich S, Tegenthoff M, Güntürkün O, Genç E, Ocklenburg S. (2019). Boom Chack Boom-A multimethod investigation of motor inhibition in professional drummers. Brain Behav, 4, e01490.
Stewart L, Henson R, Kampe K, Walsh V, Turner R, Frith U. (2003). Brain changes after learning to read and play music. Neuroimage, 20, 71-83.