Music & The Brain
Credit: Sara Mota

University of New Mexico researchers believe the creativity enjoyed by dedicated musicians seems to arise from increased surface area in specific brain regions. What remains unknown, however, is whether musical creativity enhances these brain differences – or arises from them.

Music professor David Bashwiner, PhD, and neuropsychologist Rex Jung, PhD, used structural magnetic resonance imagining (sMRI) to create brain images from a meticulously selected sample of subjects previously recruited for human creativity and intelligence studies.

In a paper published online at Nature.com last February, the pair reported finding greater brain surface area in regions related to musical expertise, default-mode cognitive processing and intensity of emotional experience combine to drive musical creativity.

Bashwiner, an accomplished musician and associate professor of musical theory and composition in UNM’s Department of Music, was intrigued by Jung’s previous work using sMRI to peer into the human brain.

Jung, a clinical professor in the Department of Neurosurgery, studies positive neuroscience – what the human brain does well. Bashwiner approached Jung, about mining his data to identify common structural brain differences in musicians who compose or improvise new works.

Their study, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Templeton Foundation, reveals that musically creative people have greater cortical surface area in complex motor and information-processing regions of the brain.

Greater surface area also is found in the human brain’s default mode network (DMN) – regions with increased activity when a person is not engaged in an explicit task) – and in areas of the brain that regulate emotion.

“There are certain areas in the brain that we know are mission-critical for music,” Jung says. “Specific regions for hearing, memory retrieval and pitch discrimination are heightened when ‘creating’ music.

At the same time, he says, other brain regions downregulate, like those that process fact-checking. This perfect storm of activations and deactivations creates the ideal setting for both musical composition and improvisation.

The study employed a portion of Jung’s existing database of 239 New Mexican men and women aged 16 to 32 involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, who self-reported their musical creativity.

Participants completed questionnaires measuring musical interest and acuity – from how often and long one practices, to whether or not one has created and performed an original score or improvises original music, to listening behaviors and preferences.

The original 239 participants were scaled down to 113 individuals who were then scanned using sMRI to measure the surface area of brain regions associated with musical creativity.

“Participants from the university, Sandia National Labs, Intel and other STEM-related professions identified a high representation in musical creativity,” Jung says. “We found that increased mathematical ability – the language of STEM and music – is connected to higher musical ability.”

The study authors say that, while regions in the DMN have frequently been identified in studies of musical improvisation and creativity, other areas in the brain are also implicated.

These regions are highly interconnected across the brain’s left and right hemispheres by a portion of the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibers that has been demonstrated to be larger in musicians, Bashwiner says.

“There are important implications here for our educational system,” Bashwiner adds. “It’s natural – and important – for us to teach basic skills and techniques. But creativity is important to society. It makes leaders and advances ideas through innovative thinking, reacting and responding to opportunities and challenges.”