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Krishnan et al. seek to determine the relationship between expertise with a particular musical instrument and activity in key regions of the brain, particularly dorsal stream regions related to auditory perception, attention, and sensorimotor activity, when listening to novel pieces of music produced by a musician’s own or another instrument. The primary question they hope to answer is whether these regions are activated differently when listening to the instrument a musician plays versus an instrument they do not play. The researchers also examine whether nonclassical musicians exhibit patterns similar to those found previously in classically trained musicians. A final question investigates whether the enhanced activity seen in musicians is more likely a product of increased attention general to musicianship or sensorimotor activity specific to the musician’s experience with a distinct instrument.
For this study, Krishnan et al. recruited 20 beatboxers, 20 guitarists, and 20 nonmusicians. The musicians studied had a minimum of 4 years of experience, with at least 2 years of professional performing experience. Beatboxers and guitarists are generally not classically trained, giving the researchers the opportunity to examine whether nonclassical musicians exhibit patterns similar to classical musicians when listening to music. As the primary inquiry sought to determine whether brain activity is expertise-dependent, it was essential that the two musical groups employ distinct motor effectors. While most musical instruments are played with the hands or hands and mouth, beatboxing uses the mouth almost exclusively. By comparing a “mouth” instrument and a “hand” instrument, researchers could avoid confounding their data. Participants were screened for musical ability and cognitive functioning, then placed in an MRI, where they listened to brief (3-5 second) clips of novel music performed by a professional beatboxer and a professional guitarist. Beatboxing and guitar selections were presented in a pseudorandomized order, interspersed with a resting baseline. They were not given any task to perform, and were asked not to move their hands or mouths while listening. Cameras recorded hand and mouth activity to ensure compliance and ensure activity seen was not the product of motor movement. As participants listened to the musical selections, researchers gathered fMRI scans for comparison.
The data was then subjected to both univariate and multivariate analysis. By gathering fMRI data and incorporating multiple types of analysis, researchers were able to identify and compare regional and network activation among participants. The data and subsequent analysis allowed Krishnan et al. to make several significant observations. They found that musicians do exhibit increased activity in the dorsal stream regions, including the sensorimotor cortex, when listening to the instrument that they can play, but when listening to the instrument they cannot play, their sensorimotor activity is more similar to that of nonmusicians. In addition, the activity seen was specific to the type of instrument played. Although they remained still while listening, beatboxers showed activation in the mouth-related motor regions, while guitarists showed activation in hand-related regions.
Other auditory and sensorimotor regions showed similar activation to that seen in classical musicians, suggesting that at least some changes in auditory perception are due to musical experience, and not classical training, and that some of the differences seen between musicians and non musicians when processing music are domain-general. Multivariate analysis of the data suggests that the increased activity seen is probably not due to an overall increase in attention by musicians, but instead is the product of specific instrument experience.
The results of this study have several interesting implications. While some of the enhanced activity seen in the brains of musicians seems to be domain-general, this study suggests that musicianship also creates expertise-specific auditory-sensorimotor perception networks in the dorsal stream. More broadly, it shows that there is more to auditory perception than simply processing a stimulus. The listener brings their own knowledge and experience to their listening, and that knowledge and experience changes the way perception happens in the brain. While the networks created by experience are not essential for perception, they may facilitate learning. This observation could be applied to work within and without the field of musicianship.
To extend the findings of Krishnan’s study, it would be interesting to investigate how the sensorimotor regions of other musicians are activated while listening passively as well as while attending to a task, and to test how enhanced dorsal stream networks impact learning. Seeing similar instrument-specific activation patterns in other musicians would bolster Krishnan’s findings. By adding an attention task, we could also compare how activity differs when listening passively versus when attention is specifically called upon. Finally, by examining how experience-dependent networks impact a musician’s ability to master a new piece, we could look more deeply into how the networks might facilitate or enhance learning.
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