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Organ der Neurowissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft

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Volume 23, Issue 2


Apollos Gift and Curse: Making Music as a model for Adaptive and Maladaptive Plasticity

Eckart Altenmüller
  • Corresponding author
  • Director, Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine (IMMM), University of Music, Drama and Media, Hanover, Emmichplatz 1, D-30175 Hannover, Phone: 0049 (0) 511 3100 552, Fax: 0049 (0) 511 3100 557, Web: www.immm.hmtm-hannover.de Germany
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  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Shinichi Furuya
  • Associate Researcher, SONY Computer Science Laboratory (SONY CSL), Tokyo, Tel: +49-511-3100552, Fax: +49-511-3100557, Web: www.neuropiano.net JAPAN
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Published Online: 2017-05-16 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/nf-2016-A054


Musicians with extensive training and playing experience provide an excellent model for studying plasticity of the human brain. The demands placed on the nervous system by music performance are very high and provide a uniquely rich multisensory and motor experience to the player. As confirmed by neuroimaging studies, playing music depends on a strong coupling of perception and action mediated by sensory, motor, and multimodal integration regions distributed throughout the brain. A pianist, for example, must draw on a whole set of complex skills, including translating visual analysis of musical notation into motor movements, coordinating multisensory information with bimanual motor activity, developing fine motor skills in both hands coupled with metric precision, and monitoring auditory feedback to fine-tune a performance as it progresses. This article summarizes research on the effects of musical training on brain function, brain connectivity and brain structure. First we address factors inducing and continuously driving brain plasticity in dedicated musicians, arguing that prolonged goal-directed practice, multi-sensory-motor integration, high arousal, and emotional and social rewards contribute to these plasticity-induced brain adaptations. Subsequently, we briefly review the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology underpinning musical activities. Here we focus on the perception of sound, integration of sound and movement, and the physiology of motor planning and motor control. We then review the literature on functional changes in brain activation and brain connectivity along with the acquisition of musical skills, be they auditory or sensory-motor. In the following section we focus on structural adaptions in the gray matter of the brain and in fiber-tract density associated with music learning. Here we critically discuss the findings that structural changes are mostly seen when starting musical training after age seven, whereas functional optimization is more effective before this age. We then address the phenomenon of de-expertise, reviewing studies which provide evidence that intensive music-making can induce dysfunctional changes which are accompanied by a degradation of skilled motor behavior, also termed “musician’s dystonia”. This condition, which is frequently highly disabling, mainly affects male classical musicians with a history of compulsive working behavior, anxiety disorder or chronic pain. Functional and structural brain changes in these musicians are suggestive of deficient inhibition and excess excitation in the central nervous system, which leads to co-activation of antagonistic pairs of muscles during performance, reducing movement speed and quality. We conclude with a concise summary of the role of brain plasticity, metaplasticity and maladaptive plasticity in the acquisition and loss of musicians’ expertise.

Keywords: MUSIC; Brain activation; Brain structure; Metaplasticity; Musician’s dystonia


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About the article

Eckart Altenmüller

Eckart Altenmüller is a full university professor and medical doctor, and has an active research and concert career. He graduated in Medicine and in Music at the University of Freiburg, where he obtained is concert diploma in the master classes of Aurèle Nicolèt and William Bennett. His clinical training was in the Department of Neurology in Freiburg and Tübingen as a neurologist and neurophysiologist. In 1994, he became Chair and Director of the Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine at Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media. In this role, he has continued his research into sensory-motor learning and movement disorders in musicians, into emotional processes while listening to music and into neurologic music therapy.

Shinichi Furuya

Prof. Dr. Shinichi Furuya is an associate professor of Department of Information and Communication Sciences at Sophia University, and holds a position as a guest professor at Institute for Music Physiology and Musician’s Medicine at Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media. He studied Mechanical Engineering at School of Engineering Science at Osaka University (BSc), Biomechanics at Graduate School of Human Science at Osaka University (MS), and Motor Neuroscience at Graduate School of Medicine at Osaka University (PhD). He then worked as a postdoctoral associate at Kwansei Gakuin University (Japan), University of Minnesota (USA), and Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media (Germany). His research interest is neuromuscular mechanisms subserving acquisition, sophistication, loss, and restoration of sensorimotor skills in musicians.

Published Online: 2017-05-16

Published in Print: 2017-05-24

Citation Information: e-Neuroforum, Volume 23, Issue 2, Pages 57–75, ISSN (Online) 1868-856X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/nf-2016-A054.

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