Music in Their Minds

Can you hear long passages of music in your mind? If so, your brain may be wired for sound like those of professional musicians.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, researchers at Germany's University of Tuebingen scanned the brains of eight professional violinists and determined that they can do something that amateurs can't—namely, hear music in their minds alone. The neuroscientists compared the neural activity of equal numbers of professional and amateur violinists, who were asked to "play back" the first 16 bars of Mozart's violin concerto in G major, first by tapping the notes out with their fingers, and then without moving their fingers. The amateurs had more activity in their motor cortexes, indicating that they were concentrating on hitting the right notes.

"When the professionals move their fingers, they are also hearing the music in their heads," Dr. Gabriela Scheler told Seth Hettena of the Associated Press. The professionals had significantly more activity in their brains' auditory cortexes than did the amateurs when they were not moving their fingers, also.

Professional training frees the musicians from needing to focus on technique, according to Scheler, a former violinist with the Nuremberg Philharmonic Orchestra. Like all skilled workers, professional musicians practice what physiologists call "neuromuscular patterning" until they acquire "unconscious competence" through sheer repetition. Unlike amateur players, they don't have to think about the actual playing of the notes, and thus can mentally separate hearing the music from the process of playing it.

The MRI scans showed that the musicians were hearing the music in their minds, without any outward manifestations. The experiment was "the first time anyone had studied music and its relationship to motor control and imagery," Hettena reported on November 14. Music is one of the most highly integrated neural activities, according to Dr. Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute, because it involves memory, learning, motor control, emotion, hearing, and creativity.