Playing music alters the processing of multiple sensory stimuli in the brain

Playing music alters the processing of multiple sensory stimuli in the brain
A segment of the audiovisual speech (left) and music (right) stimulus. © HweeLing Lee/MPI for Biological Cybernetics

(Medical Xpress) -- Over the years pianists develop a particularly acute sense of the temporal correlation between the movements of the piano keys and the sound of the notes played. However, they are no better than non-musicians at assessing the synchronicity of lip movements and speech.

This was discovered by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in a comparative study on the simultaneous brain processing of stimuli from different senses by musicians and non-musicians. The researchers also used functional magnetic resonance imaging in their study to map the areas of the brain active during this process. According to their findings, in pianists, the perception of asynchronous music and hand movements triggers increased error signals in a circuit involving the , premotor and associative areas of the brain, which is refined by piano practicing. The study shows that our sensorimotor experience influences the way in which the brain temporally links signals from different senses during perception.

In a world full of stimuli which affect all senses, the constantly has to link the impressions we perceive in a way that makes sense. We learn through experience, for example, that the synchronous events that arise in a busy bar setting, such as the of a particular person and the sound of a certain voice, belong together. HweeLing Lee and research group leader Uta Noppeney from the Max Planck Institute for in Tübingen study how the brain integrates stimuli from several senses and how the circuits in the brain change as a result of learning. In their latest study, they examined how well 18 amateur pianists were able to perceive the temporal coincidence between finger movements on the piano keys and a piece of piano music and between lip movements and spoken sentences as compared with 19 non-musicians. “For this study, we availed of the fact that the pianists specifically train in an activity, in which several sensory stimuli, that is visual and auditory information, movement and the striking of the piano keys, have to be connected,” explains Uta Noppeney.

During the experiment, the finger or mouth movements were advanced or delayed in relation to the sounds heard at intervals of up to 360 milliseconds. The study participants were requested to specify when asked whether the events were synchronous or asynchronous. Using the same film and sound material and the same participants, the experiments were then repeated using (fMRI). In this case, the subjects remained passive and the machine recorded the areas of the brain that became active during the automatic perception of the synchronous and asynchronous signals.

The experiments revealed that the pianists were significantly more accurate than the non-musicians in assessing whether the finger movements on the piano and the sounds heard coincided temporally or not. “The window for the temporal integration of the stimuli in the pianists is clearly narrower than in non-musicians,” says HweeLing Lee. However, the same differences were not observed in the experiments involving spoken sentences and lip movements – both groups recorded similar performances here. In principle, asynchronicity in language and music activates the same areas in the brain. However, the fMRI scans showed that, in the experiment with the pianists, asynchronous music triggered a stronger signal in a circuit involving the left cerebellum, a premotor and associative region in the cerebral cortex than in the non-musicians.

“The processing of stimuli in the brains of the pianists points to a context-specific mechanism: as a result of their piano practice, a forward model involving the cerebellum and premotor cerebral cortex is programmed in the circuit which enables the individual to make far more precise predictions about the correct temporal sequence of the visual and auditory signals,” explains Uta Noppeney. “An asynchronous stimulus triggers prediction error signal.” The researchers see this as an important indication of how the brain can generally react in a flexible way to sensorimotor experience. Whether pianists would perform equally well in the assessment of violin music and whether more intensive music playing would influence language processing in the brain remain open questions. “For the next stage in the study of the processing of multiple sensory in the , we will have to train the participants in a specific way so that we can investigate the effects in greater detail,” says Uta Noppeney.

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More information: HweeLing Lee, Uta Noppeney, Long-term music training tunes how the brain temporally binds signals from multiple senses, PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1115267108
Citation: Playing music alters the processing of multiple sensory stimuli in the brain (2011, November 24) retrieved 23 August 2019 from
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Nov 24, 2011
Methinks that only abstrusely oriented reductionists could possibly have devised this "experiment." As a professional classical guitarist and musicologist I am persuaded to observe: "what an amazing surprise..." Now perhaps they can also usefully research what happens in premotor areas and frontal cortex when impacting a rubber hammer on a mouse's tail and let us know the distribution of accentuated components in the spectrum of overtones generated as consequence.

Nov 24, 2011
The reseachers should study the ablity of ORGANISTS to adjust their Temporal Sense to the various delays present in large Aduitoriums snd Churches. The delay cn be as long a one second for pipes at the other end of the space. Or maybe they tune out the sound and play just the mechanical hand movement.

Nov 26, 2011
As a musician myself ( guitar, bass, percussion ) it would seem to make sense that some stimulus is processed together, otherwise how could I play both the rhythm and the melody on a bass, for ex, at the same time ? I think non-musicians don't understand when you play music, you aren't just keeping time, or aren't just creating a progression of notes, you are doing both and more. Also, visual input does nothing for me musically, as far as looking at the instrument I'm playing, makes no difference if my eyes are open or shut.

I tend to hear music out of thin air, especially in the presence of any sort of rhythm, it can be an off-balance washing machine, my mind builds a symphony around it without any help from me.....idk....odd, but amusing.

Nov 28, 2011
I'm wondering whether they took into account the amount of time it takes for the keys to be fully pressed. A pianist will know when the sound is actually made, while a non-musician may not have a feeling for that. Since both have the same experience with speech, both pianists and non-musicians will be able to make the right estimations for synchronicity in speech.

Nov 28, 2011
The performance of music involves intrinsic delays - neurological / sensomotor action/feedback delays, mechanical delays in the instrument itself, acoustic propagation delays - NONE of these normally require conscious modulatory adjustment on the part of the performing musician: this would be like having to attentively, consciously moving your left foot after the right one while walking. What is relevant is the melodic / contrapuntal / stylistic performance of the music - this has an analogised, neurologically embedded model as origin which is cognitively modulated on a realtime basis as continuously sourced from memory. No doubt we may regard this as a beautifully miraculous process, e.g. seen in light of Pribram's "distributed wave-field" model of memory. No "time delay" adjustment is performed by any practiced performer, only stylistic, rhythmic, timbre and amplitude modulation as required in the thematic expression of the music. Music accurately reflects an underlying reality.

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