The Power of Music - Playing Piano Boosts your Brain

The power of music can transform our cognitive and emotional functions in amazing ways.

On a quiet night, I can hear melodies in my head as if my brain refuses to accept the idea that there is no music. I feel the ivory keys beneath my fingers, even though I am miles away from my instrument.  It never stops, you know. I can always hear music. I can always feel the power of music and its embrace.

I say this because I understand the effect that music has on musicians. It’s entrancing. Music changes a person. In fact, music completely changes the way we think and how we use our brains, to a degree that both hemispheres connect in a larger area and for a longer period of time. That’s so interesting, isn’t it? You know what? Despite how far-fetched this may seem, it’s true.

I’m going to ask a stupid question, but just bear with me.

What is music?

Music is a primal form of communication. It’s been around since the dawn of time, well, kind of. Music activates areas of the brain areas that pertain to emotion, motivation and reward. With various instruments, you can weave a story, tap into emotions and even produce a calm reserve. At the same time, music can insight violence, rage and ignite passions. Yes, the power of music can do all that.

So, what happens to those who create the music?

Learning how to play a musical instrument alters the brain, even enlarges some areas related to dexterity and hearing. It’s more than just listening to music, it’s being able to differentiate music from other sounds, with a perfection unknown to non-musicians. Musicians can separate speech from background noise and detect emotional inflections. Music affects the entire body, as well. Pianists, for example, can feel music pass from their fingertips, throughout their body and back into their fingertips producing even deeper sounds.

Homer W. Smith, the author of From Fish to Philosopher, said,

The most intricately and perfectly coordinated of all voluntary movements in the animal kingdom are those of the human hands and fingers, and perhaps, in no other human activity, do memory, complex integration and muscular coordination surpass the achievements of the skilled pianist.

Put the power of music to the test

The power of music changes us, right? We wanted to know if brains of musicians were different from brains of non-musicians.

At the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, researchers used fMRI machines to monitor how hemispheres connect in musicians versus non-musicians. The test subjects were grouped by professional practicing musicians with degrees and those who had no formal musical training. Seems a little unfair, don’t you think? Well, let’s just play along, shall we?

The professional musicians included keyboard players, violinists, bassoonists, cellists and trombone players. All participants were subjected to three pieces of music: Stravinsky, Argentinian Tango and progressive rock. As suspected, there was a definite difference between the groups of test subjects. Researchers were looking for flares of neurological activity in both hemispheres of the brain, and they got it.

A rewired brain

Symmetry was much more dominant in the musicians’ brains than with the non-musicians. As a matter of fact, keyboard players had more connection than other musicians. This is due to the kinematic symmetry, which means the symmetry of the musician’s movements as they are directly linked to neurological symmetry. It’s totally different than with string instruments.

Iballa Burunat told New Scientist,

Keyboard players have a more mirrored use of both hands and fingers when playing.

It seems we always come back to the pianist, in some form or fashion. What does piano practice do for the learning musician?

Your brain on music

There are cognitive and emotional benefits to piano practice. Whether you’ve learned from an early age or later in life, the benefits never stop. Cognitive benefits can include increased reasoning skills in science and mathematics, higher test scores and functions in these subjects as well. This has shown a marked effect on chess players and engineers. Other cognitive gains include stronger connections between motor and sensory regions of the brain, a rise in IQ, and improved spatial-temporal reasoning and abstract thinking skills in preschool musicians.

Emotional and social benefits are also improved, as I said before. Self-esteem is higher in those who practice music. Lessons reduce stress, improves patience and social skills. Becoming a pianist can also improve the overall emotional health of the college age student. That speaks volumes. 😉

Your body on music

You can say that music is a body snatcher. It takes complete control of everything you see, hear and know. There is so much going on when you play piano, it’s almost unthinkable! Your eyes have to read two lines of music simultaneously. Your ears listen to the notes and adjust accordingly. Now get this, your hands have to play two separate pieces of the same musical score. One hand plays the melody while the other plays rhythm. With all this thinking, feeling, hearing and moving going on, the pianist also has to keep time with the music. Emotions start to flow through the fingers and into the keys, which adds the weight of the fingers and expressive timing, all done without looking at the keys. I bet you didn’t know that your posture is important to playing as well. The pianist has to always be aware of the positioning of their entire body. All this is done while utilizing the Una Cordell pedal and the sustain pedal. Whew! That’s a load of work, huh!

Check out this infographic to see which brain regions are activated when playing piano:

The power of music - Infographic piano lessons benefits

So you get it then, right? The power of music can transform the human into something…well, more than human. This is what I believe, at least. Just consider a few famous people who tickled the ivories: Clint Eastwood, Anthony Hopkins, Kelsey Grammer and Sandra Bullock. Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein also had the ability to manipulate keys. Mark Twain also played piano, which could have influenced his writing or vice versa. You never know.

If you play an instrument, then you know about these things already. In all probability, you can do many things like art, writing and maybe even photography. It’s almost as if the music is a gateway drug to other artistic addictions. In the process, you become smarter, happier and more in-tune with your true self. So it stands to reason that…

If you don’t play a musical instrument, then what are you waiting for? It’s never too late to dive into the magical waters of music. Go for it!

In conclusion, check out this video with an incredible performance by pianist Andrey Gugnin playing Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes (just imagine how well-wired your brain should be to play like that!):

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Sherrie is a freelance writer and artist with over 10 years of experience. She spends most of her time giving life to the renegade thoughts. As the words erupt and form new life, she knows that she is yet again free from the nagging persistence of her muse. She is a mother of three and a lifetime fan of the thought-provoking and questionable aspects of the universe.