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.


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.


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

Mike B

They can't have that well developed brains as they chose to become musicians.

Herman Melvillain

not bad musicians!


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.


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?)


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?



Jeff Chambers

On that last BTW: I think any musician not just a bass player without a girlfriend is "Homeless"

Ryan P

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.


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...

Pietr Hitzig

Another approach, equally as sound, is to quantify the bumps on the skull. It was considered science in the 19th century.

Pietr Hitzig

I had a great musician in my family. He had perfect pitch and a great recipe for Pasta con Cavolfiore


Musicians on par with 'top level managers'? Well if they're so smart, why aren't they rich?

Seriously, I seriously doubt that most 'top level managers' have a more highly developed brain than the average person.


Top-level managers =/= manager in a high position.

Also, I can think of several reasons they might not be rich - many people want to do what they enjoy, and music is notorious for not paying all that well. I'm lucky that computer science is my passion, since it pays relatively well.


The instrumentalists that I know who play for top symphonies and opera orchestras pull in well over six figures. Between that, freelancing and teaching I'd say they're doing pretty well financially.


I would go even further and say that anybody exposed to a lot of quality music with a certain inclination to grasp it and process it, benefits a great deal from it.
Kind of helping you develop a wider range of perception.


Great article. Unfortunately it's also true that most administrators, school boards, and state funding institutions don't consider music important enough to keep it in the schools. Perhaps if they had taken music courses in school, their brains would have developed enough to see the value.....