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Science Shows How Piano Players' Brains Are Actually Different From Everybody Elses'

Piano lessons are sort of like braces. For a few years, everyone's parents paid a lot of money so their children could contort their bodies (fingers; teeth) and lie about doing something daily that, really, they never did (scales; rubber bands). Both were formative experiences.

But while everyone grows out of braces, some people never recover from childhood piano lessons. This is, in part, because true pianists' brains are actually different from those of everyone else. In this series, we've already written about what makes guitarists' and drummers' brains unique, but playing keys is an entirely different beast. Drums are functionally pitchless and achordal, so pitch selection and chord voicings aren't part of the equation. Guitar only allows for six notes at once and heavily favors left-hand dexterity.

But piano is the ultimate instrument in terms of skill and demand: Two hands have to play together simultaneously while navigating 88 keys. They can play up to 10 notes at a time. To manage all those options, pianists have to develop a totally unique brain capacity — one that has been revealed by science.

Because both hands are required to be equally active for pianists' to master their instrument, they have to overcome something innate to almost every person: right or left-handedness.

In most people, the depth of the brain's central sulcus is either deeper on the right or on the left side, which then determines which hand is dominant. But when scientists scanned the brains of pianists, they found something different: Pianists had a demonstrably more symmetrical central sulcus than everyone else — though they were born right or left-handed, their brains barely registered it. Because the pianists still had a dominant hand, researchers speculated that their equal depth was not natural, but resulted because pianists are able to strengthen their weaker side to more closely match their dominant side. Rachmaninoff would be proud:

Already, then, pianists are able to make their brains into better-rounded machines. But it turns out the heavy-tax of piano playing makes their minds efficient in every way. A study by Dr. Ana Pinho (whose name kind of explains her research focus) showed that when jazz pianists play, their brains have an extremely efficient connection between the different parts of the frontal lobe compared to non-musicians. That's a big deal — the frontal lobe is responsible for integrating a ton of information into decision making. It plays a major role in problem solving, language, spontaneity, decision making and social behavior. Pianists, then, tend to integrate all of the brain's information into more efficient decision making processes. Because of this high speed connection, they can breeze through slower, methodical thinking and tap into quicker and more spontaneous creativity.

Most shockingly, though, Pinho also found that when experienced pianists play, they literally switch off the part of the brain associated with providing stereotypical responses, ensuring that they play with their own unique voice and not the voices of others. Basically, it's the opposite of Guitar Center riffage — true innovation like Oscar Peterson: 

But piano is a taxing and complex instrument for the whole brain. Real pianists are marked by brains that efficiently conserve energy by allocating resources more effectively than anyone else. Dr. Timo Krings scanned pianists' brains as they soloed and found that they pump less blood than average people in the brain region associated with fine motor skills. Less blood flow means less energy is needed to concentrate. Though that's likely true of anyone who's mastered a nimble task, it only compounds the efficiency pianists' brains develop through mutating the central sulcus and altering their frontal lobe's function. In pianists, the change in blood flow frees them to concentrate on other things that are totally unique to pianists — like their own unique form of communication.  

It's a difficult concept to grasp, but it's one of the coolest things about being a pianist. When pianists improvise, the language portion of their brain remains active — like any musician, playing music is fundamentally an act of communication. But the big difference for pianists is that their communication is about syntax, not words. Dr. Charles Limb's study showed that when pianists solo, their brains respond as if they were responding in a conversation, but they pay attention to phrasing and "grammatical" structure instead of specific words and phrases.

So pianists' brains actually are different. They are masters of creative, purposeful and efficient communication because of the very instrument that they play. They are the naturally efficient multi-taskers of the musical world, because when you're a player like Yuja Wang, there is zero room for doubt and hesitation.

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