Musicians’ brains on display

11.5.2015
Two professional musicians let researchers test their brains while they performed to a sold-out concert hall. Now you can watch a video of the research concert.

Two members of the a cappella sextet Rajaton are sitting backstage at Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall trying on EEG headgear that resembles swimming caps. Laboratory Engineer Tommi Makkonen and Research Assistant Nella Moisseinen, a student in cognitive sciences, are attaching cables to the caps.

“My biggest fear is that they find no brain activity at all, just a flat line,” jokes musician Jussi Chydenius.

Musicians Essi Wuorela and Chydenius have agreed to participate in a study which would make any performer nervous. While they perform with their group Rajaton to a sold-out Finlandia Hall, a screen behind them will display a feed of their brain activity.

In addition to heart rate, the audience will see in real time which brain areas are activated at which times, and how much the brain generates relaxing alpha waves in relation to beta waves that indicate a higher level of alertness or stress.

Easier to learn foreign languages

Musicians’ brains are studied because they are different from average people. “Information travels faster between the parts of a musician’s brain,” explains Professor Minna Huotilainen, who studies the impact of music on the brain.

“They also have more connections inside the brain as well as between the brain and muscles.”

Huotilainen works in the Brain and Music research group at the University of Helsinki’s Cognitive Brain Research unit.

The brain of a child who picks up music as a hobby will very quickly undergo changes similar to those in the brains of professional musicians.

“The brain areas trained by music are effective in all hearing and fine motor skills. Practising music at school age improves pronunciation as well as hearing comprehension of foreign languages,” says Huotilainen.

Music is therapy

According to Paula Virtalas doctoral dissertation, even newborns have the capacity to recognise chords. This suggests that music comes naturally to humans.

Meanwhile, Speech and Language Therapist Ritva Torppas upcoming doctoral dissertation has established that children using cochlear implants benefit from music, and singing in particular. It helps with both speech development and the development of attention skills.

According to researchers, the therapeutic powers of music seem quite underappreciated. Music may have much to offer in the treatment of older people, for example, particularly those with memory disorders.

“Music has a positive influence on the psychological wellbeing of older people. Listening to music improves their cognitive performance in tasks that require concentration, working memory and language skills,” lists researcher Teppo Särkämö.

“Practising music improves attentiveness, cognitive control, memory and language skills.”

The concert was organized by Finnish Brain Foundation.

Watch the video of the research concert

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