Cognitive neuroscientist and concert pianist Fredrik Ullén talks about what playing music does to our brains – and what it doesn’t do. He also explains what it takes to become an outstanding musician.
Sabine Gysi: Does making music make us better human beings?
Fredrik Ullén: There has been a lot of discussion about whether the positive effects of making music transfer to other domains. One question, for instance, is whether music makes us smarter. My take on the literature is that there is no strong evidence for cognitive transfer. In general, cognitive transfer is very difficult to achieve. Apparently when you practice a skill, you become better at that skill, but not at completely different things.
But when it comes to socioemotional effects, there is a case for music making us “better” in the sense that it can promote bonding, increase group cohesion, reduce conflict and help to bring people together.
“Apparently when you practice a skill, you become better at that skill, but not at completely different things.”
In terms of the evolutionary roots of music, one prominent theory suggests that music, dancing, and related behaviors may have evolved as a means to bond members of a tribe, decrease conflict, and make people more inclined to pursue the common interests of the group.
Transferring this to a school setting: These days, we see a lot of conflict among young people in a school environment, and making music together might help to lower the level of conflict and improve the environment. Although more research in this field would be important, existing studies indicate that music education may indeed have such positive effects on prosocial behavior.
SG: So should music be taught to every child at school?
FU: Yes, I support that, for other reasons as well. It’s very important that we expose children to high-quality culture, be it music or other fields. If they’re not exposed to these things in school, they might never be, and culture enriches our lives.
SG: But still, when it comes to general cognitive effects, you say that playing music doesn’t have a big influence on a child’s brain?
FU: Of course we see changes in the brain, but we see them mainly in regions that you use when you perform music, for example motor and auditory areas. There may be some small spread effects, for instance on verbal abilities. But the main effect of practicing something, such as music, is to increase specialization and make you better at what you are doing.
“Music education may indeed have such positive effects on prosocial behavior.”
SG: Many of us play a musical instrument when we are young, but never achieve proficiency and ultimately quit. Why is that? Is it because we lack talent, or simply because we’re lazy and don’t like to practice?
FU: Without question, practice is very important if you want to become really good in any area. But there are other, practice-independent, traits that are helpful as well. In music, for instance, it’s obviously vital to have a good ear, to be able to hear pitches and rhythms. Research by our group and others shows that this ability is substantially influenced by genetic factors.
Think of sports! For many sports having a certain body type, being taller or shorter, will be helpful. And if you look at elite athletes in a given sport, you’ll find rather similar physical attributes.
So yes, training is important, but it’s not the whole story. And genes also affect your inclination to practice. Many factors, including genes and environment, play a role in this context.
“Genes also affect your inclination to practice.”
In short: If you are very interested in music and respond strongly to it, if you have a good ear and are willing to practice, then it’s much more likely that you will become a successful musician.
SG: How important is creativity for someone who plays music?
FU: Well, a pianist playing a score obviously can’t remove or change notes. But in order to be a great artist, you also need to be creative, and you have the freedom to do so. If you listen to famous recordings of the same piece, it’s astonishing how much they differ. So an instrumentalist has less room for creativity compared with composers, who can basically do whatever they want, but he or she can still be quite creative.
SG: You wear two hats: You’re a concert pianist, and you’re a cognitive neuroscientist. Do these two roles enhance each other?
FU: Possibly to some extent, yes. In my lab, we often have musicians participating in our studies and we design experiments that involve music, so it’s a plus to have basic musical knowledge. It might help a bit when I formulate hypotheses and analyze data. Other than that, I don’t see any obvious transfer. But of course, it does have a positive effect on my quality of life that I use my brain in two very different ways.
“I would definitely play music even if it had no positive side effects. I’d do it because I love music, because it’s a wonderful thing in itself.”
Coming back to the discussion of transfer effects: I sometimes get tired of that question, because it suggests that we should be involved in activities – such as music – for reasons other than the activity itself. But I would definitely play music even if it had no positive side effects. I’d do it because I love music, because it’s a wonderful thing in itself. If you read a novel or visit an art exhibition, it’s rewarding in itself, right? Art and music are important because they’re part of civilization and enrich our lives.
Fredrik Ullén is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. His research focuses on the neuropsychology of expertise and creativity and the various brain mechanisms that allow us to perform at a very high level within a given field. He is also active as a concert pianist and can be heard on more than 20 CDs, which have received outstanding reviews.