Do Musicians Have Better Brains?

(Photo: Lifesize)

A new study (abstract here; summary here) argues that musicians have more highly developed brains than the rest of us. The research relates the concept of high mind development to the potential to become really good at something:

New research shows that musicians’ brains are highly developed in a way that makes the musicians alert, interested in learning, disposed to see the whole picture, calm, and playful. The same traits have previously been found among world-class athletes, top-level managers, and individuals who practice transcendental meditation.

Using EEG‘s to measure brain activity, researchers concluded the following about the brains of musicians:

They have well-coordinated frontal lobes. Our frontal lobes are what we use for higher brain functions, such as planning and logical thinking. Another characteristic is that activity at a certain frequency, so-called alpha waves, dominates. Alpha waves occur when the brain puts together details into wholes. Yet another EEG measure shows that individuals with high mind brain development use their brain resources economically. They are alert and ready for action when it is functional to be so, but they are relaxed and adopt a wait-and-see attitude when that is functional.

Musicians also exhibited higher levels of moral reasoning and had more frequent “peak experiences”– intense moments of happiness and feelings of transcending limitations.

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  1. AaronS says:

    As a musician, I do like to think this article is right…but then I see Keith Richard and I’m back to square one.

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    • Jonnay says:

      well, that a dumb statement. Just because he used so many drugs does not mean he is dumber than classical musicians or musicians in general. He has a great musical mind and has provided the world with many, many musical ideas.

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    • Greg says:

      Not only is Keith Richards a brilliant musician, but he is a really interesting thinker as well, based on interviews of him that I’ve read. Seems like people, even other musicians, love to fetishize the idea of the “dumb rock musician barbarian” but I think that image is mostly a myth.

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    • Cliff Simon says:

      Read Keith’s autobiography, you may want to re-think your offhand dismissal of his higher reasoning skills.

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  2. Illysa says:

    Which came first: the music lessons or the better brain?

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    • relm says:

      That is an excellent question – are musicians the result of larger brains or larger brains the result of the musicianship? Second question – how important is brain size anyway? I know in the old days they weighed brains as an indication of intelligence but now, I thought we knew it was more complex than that. For example, some people with traumatic head injury can “adapt” to similar or more functions with less brain matter.

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    • Zahir says:

      Why do we have to think of “brain” as a static entity? and as far as I’ve read, my opinion is that musicians have better brain utility, I mean they us it better than most people. They have smooth control over brain activity i.e. a healthy mind.

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  3. Mike B says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  4. Herman Melvillain says:

    not bad musicians!

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  5. James says:

    It’d be interesting to see just what sort of musicians were included in the study. If classical musicians, yes, I’d find it quite believable. If it was more popular “musicians” – rockers, rappers, and the like – I have to say that there’s a lot of conflicting evidence.

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    • Tessa says:

      As both a classical music nerd and metalhead, I can tell you that there are a lot more similarities between classical music and rock music than you may expect. There are a lot of intelligent lyrics and riffs to be found in rock music. (Also, have you ever listened to symphonic metal?)

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    • Kyle says:

      Don’t even try to open his eyes, Tessa. Once somebody makes a conscious decision to be an elitist, they filter everything they see and hear to the point that they have to surround themselves with stiff-necked people who are just like them, and then once they’ve done that, they can never branch out and experience new things for fear of rejection by their group.

      (They also tend to mope about because they believe they are burdened with such finely tuned intellect that it cuts them off from the rest of humanity – which is pretty funny, because most of the elitists I’ve met had IQs that didn’t even clear 120!)

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      • Chris says:

        In this case, I do not believe the point was to be elitist; rather, that is your perception. The point is valid: while similar, there is a difference between the complexities and nuances that are involved in “classical” music. This includes long-term training with established mentors, the study of other cultures through a repertoire of music that spans from the U.S., U.K., Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Spain, Hungary, etc., and working in collaboration with others within this framework. Add to this mix the historical aspect of performance practice, the intentions of the composer, and the weighing of long traditions. These are not optional elements; in addition to technical virtuosity, a great classical musician (there are plenty of mediocre ones, just as the amount of great rock musicians is few) needs to have a number of intellectual skills, as a prerequisite to be successful.

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      • Karen Bell says:

        I think you are being elitist, or just unaware..
        Classical musicians have had a lot of formal training but traditional musicians train themselves being self motivated. Also, I have attempted to play music with classical musicians in unclassical environments and the are usually unable to improvise or play along on a simple 3 chord songs, being trained to only play what is written.

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    • juju says:

      Click the links to read the abstract and summary. The study was conducted on classical musicians (professional vs. amateur). The little summary on the top of this page is so brief it is almost misleading.

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    • Don says:

      So in other words, it takes little imagination to create music like KRS-One, Da La Soul, etc or Led Zepplelin, AC/DC, etc? You’ll find intelligent creations that take a lot of practicing of ones art, along with large doses of introspection, in all styles.

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  6. AaronS says:

    Some things I’ve noticed in middle school Band Class….

    The flutists are almost always girls…and they are almost always top students.

    Trumpet players tend to be rowdy boys–the kind that likely have conduct issues.

    Tuba and trombone (and other bass section) players tend to also be the smart kids.

    Clarinets are the almost always the worst-performing group in terms of musical skills. NOT because they are not good musicians, necessarily, but because the fingering on clarinets is difficult AND because clarinets, not usually being a loud instrument, likely allows some to “relax” and not have to truly know the music.

    Sax players–I don’t know. They are truly a mixed bag.

    Of course, these are just stereotypes. Great players arise in every instrument, but at the middle school level, this is how I see it.

    By the way, what do you call a bass player without a girlfriend?

    Homeless.

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    • Jeff Chambers says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • jess snow says:

        Good one and also true! Dated one for 5 years and during that time he had to come live with me since he got kicked out his old establishment.

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    • Jeffrey Solow says:

      I learned that as a drummer joke…

      You will certainly be amused by this 1984 article in Con Sordino discussing stereotypes of orchestral musicians:

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  7. Ryan P says:

    When I was 20, I had an emergency appendectomy. The doctor who came by to check on me several times a day after my surgery seemed like a really nice guy, so I asked my Dad (who was an anesthesiologist at that hospital) what his story was. Dad told me he had a doctorate in music. After I said that I didn’t think a doctorate in music qualified people to work as physicians, he told me he had decided to go to medical school in his early 40s and was then resident at the hospital.

    If a lot of musicians are like that guy, I’d believe they’re pretty smart.

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    • crquack says:

      You are labouring under the common misconception that you need to be smart to be a physician. You need “threshold intelligence” (see Gladwell), ability to go without sleep, smile, do repetitive tasks without appearing bored and remember stuff.

      You need a really good brain to be a musician…

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  8. Pietr Hitzig says:

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