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Musicians Have More Gray Matter

Professional musicians have more gray matter in the part of the brain that processes music. This may explain why some people seem to be born musicians, while the rest of us struggle with piano lessons. But scientists aren?t sure whether some people are born with the extra gray matter, or if it?s developed over years of practicing an instrument. Also, did great musicians like Mozart have more gray matter than rock musicians do today?

Neurologists at the University of Heidelberg in Germany played tones of varying frequencies to professional musicians, amateur musicians and non-musicians, and then recorded the responses in the part of the brain known as Heschl's gyrus, which is buried inside the auditory cortex, the region of the brain that responds to sound. They found that professional musicians showed greater responses to the tones than non-musicians, and amateurs were somewhere in between. Next they used brain imaging techniques to measure the size of the Heschl's gyrus and found it was larger in professional musicians, who had 130% more gray matter.

Dr. Peter Schneider believes that the amount of this gray matter is fixed from birth, so musicians inherit their talent. He says, "There must be a great influence of genetics to account for the great volume of gray matter in the professional musicians."

But musical ability is a mixture of nature and nurture. Schneider says, "It could be a genetic influence only or it could be an influence of the musical environment in early childhood." Many musicians, like Mozart, grew up in a family of musicians, which helped them to develop a good ear for music. Scientists believe that a person?s musical potential is ?fixed? by the age of 9, so if you?re not a prodigy, you?ll never become a great musician.

Dr. Bob Carlyon, of the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in the U.K., also isn?t sure about how to interpret the data. "The problem with these types of studies is that you never really know if the Heschl's gyrus has become larger and more responsive because of continued practice or whether people become musicians because they have large and responsive Heschl's gyri," he says.

Brain scans show that different parts of our brain respond to different types of music.Rhythm and pitch are processed in the left-hand side, while melody is processed on the right. So maybe rock fans and fans of classical music have equal amounts of gray matter?they just have differently-shaped brains.

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