How piano tuning changes the brain

September, 2012

In another example of how expertise in a specific area changes the brain, brain scans of piano tuners show which areas grow, and which shrink, with experience — and starting age.

I’ve reported before on how London taxi drivers increase the size of their posterior hippocampus by acquiring and practicing ‘the Knowledge’ (but perhaps at the expense of other functions). A new study in similar vein has looked at the effects of piano tuning expertise on the brain.

The study looked at the brains of 19 professional piano tuners (aged 25-78, average age 51.5 years; 3 female; 6 left-handed) and 19 age-matched controls. Piano tuning requires comparison of two notes that are close in pitch, meaning that the tuner has to accurately perceive the particular frequency difference. Exactly how that is achieved, in terms of brain function, has not been investigated until now.

The brain scans showed that piano tuners had increased grey matter in a number of brain regions. In some areas, the difference between tuners and controls was categorical — that is, tuners as a group showed increased gray matter in right hemisphere regions of the frontal operculum, the planum polare, superior frontal gyrus, and posterior cingulate gyrus, and reduced gray matter in the left hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, and superior temporal lobe. Differences in these areas didn’t vary systematically between individual tuners.

However, tuners also showed a marked increase in gray matter volume in several areas that was dose-dependent (that is, varied with years of tuning experience) — the anterior hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, right middle temporal and superior temporal gyrus, insula, precuneus, and inferior parietal lobe — as well as an increase in white matter in the posterior hippocampus.

These differences were not affected by actual chronological age, or, interestingly, level of musicality. However, they were affected by starting age, as well as years of tuning experience.

What these findings suggest is that achieving expertise in this area requires an initial development of active listening skills that is underpinned by categorical brain changes in the auditory cortex. These superior active listening skills then set the scene for the development of further skills that involve what the researchers call “expert navigation through a complex soundscape”. This process may, it seems, involve the encoding and consolidating of precise sound “templates” — hence the development of the hippocampal network, and hence the dependence on experience.

The hippocampus, apart from its general role in encoding and consolidating, has a special role in spatial navigation (as shown, for example, in the London cab driver studies, and the ‘parahippocampal place area’). The present findings extend that navigation in physical space to the more metaphoric one of relational organization in conceptual space.

The more general message from this study, of course, is confirmation for the role of expertise in developing specific brain regions, and a reminder that this comes at the expense of other regions. So choose your area of expertise wisely!

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