Piano Street Magazine

Piano Playing – A Public Health Concept?

March 6th, 2009 in Articles by | 13 comments

Pianists who begin practicing in childhood have been found to have better developed nerve pathways in parts of their brains. Scientists believe this results in better fine motor coordination.

When children practice the piano, their brains develop.

Most professional pianists begin their careers in early childhood. Very few people can develop their capacities as fully later in life. A research group under the leadership of  Fredrik Ullén, a neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute (Stockholm, Sweden) and an internationally renowned concert pianist, has made a discovery that may help explain why this is so. Their findings are presented in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Using diffusion tensor imaging, the research team investigated effects of piano practicing in childhood, adolescence and adulthood on white matter and found positive correlations between practicing and fiber tract organization in different regions for each age period. For childhood, practicing correlations were extensive and included the pyramidal tract, which was more structured in pianists than in non-musicians. Long-term training within critical developmental periods may thus induce regionally specific plasticity in myelinating tracts.

A clear different was visible when the brains of professional pianists were compared with those of non-musicians, particularly in the “pyramidal pathway,” that governs the work of the fingers at the keyboard.

“Our main finding is a clear effect that can be attributed to practice in early childhood,” says Fredrik Ullén.

The pyramidal pathway can be described as a collection of nerve tracts that travel from the cerebral cortex through the pyramid of the medulla oblongata in the brainstem to the spinal cord. It is a part of the brain that develops most during childhood.

“The pyramidal pathway is known to be decisive to sophisticated finger movements,” Fredrik Ullén continues.

His research group found that the white brain matter in the pyramidal pathway becomes well-organized from practicing the piano. White brain matter contains both the nerve fibers myelin, a lipid-containing substance that contributes to the layer of insulation that surrounds a nerve.

Fredrik Ullén believes that development of myelin is stimulated when children practice the piano. This extra insulation enables the impulses to travel faster from the brain down to the fingers.

The researchers also found that the white matter was better developed in the transitions between the areas of the brain that govern hearing and motor control.

Fredrik Ullén states: “This probably affects the coordination between what we hear and what we do.”

This latter increase was not found to be as closely correlated with childhood practicing, probably because these pathways continue to develop in adulthood.

“Generally,” says Fredrik Ullén, “we can state that the effect of every hour of practicing on white brain matter greater earlier in life.”

Ullén hopes to continue by studying a group of pianists who practiced as children but then stopped playing. His objective is to investigate whether the effects on the pyramidal pathways are lifelong effects, or whether they require perseverant lifelong practicing to be maintained.


Swedish pianist Fredrik Ullén was educated at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, but cites Finnish pianist Liisa Pohjola as being his primary influence. Ullén is a highly skilled virtuoso who specializes in Sorabji, the Stockhausen Klavierstücke, the Ligeti etudes, and other works requiring a high degree of transcendental skill. He also works extensively with living composers such as György Kurtág, Mauricio Kagel, George Flynn and Barnabás Dukay. He has recorded for Pro Piano and Caprice labels, but since 1996 has primarily recorded for Swedish label BIS. Ullén’s large and constantly growing repertoire includes many of the most complex and demanding works in the piano literature, such as Ligeti’s complete piano études, Reger’s Spezial-studien and music by Sorabji. He has a particular interest in creative programming with couplings of new and traditional literature. His solo CDs for BIS Records have without exception been enthusiastically praised by internationally renowned critics and have received an impressive number of prestigious awards and accolades, including the Diapason d’or, CHOC de Le Monde de la Musique, Stern des Monats (FonoForum), Recommandé (Répertoire), and Recomendado (CD Compact). Ullén has performed at a large number of international music festivals, to outstanding critical acclaim (‘an unbelievable pianistic presence’, Schleswig-Holsteinische Landeszeitung, 2001; ‘spectacular’, New YorkTimes, 2001; ‘astonishing precision, stamina, and imagination’, Boston Globe, 2002).

Recordings on BIS


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  • I play the piano 55 years now since my 7th year. I will not have a fulfilled day-feeling if I dont play the piano. Bach everyday. I am not a soloist but a playful amateur. Las month I thought up the following hypothesis: People who play the piano during their life-time will suffer significantly less from Altheimer than non-musician. I think so simply because of the constant interaction between the 2 brain parts via the Corpus Callosum; less chance of brain atrophy.
    Well maybe a nice thesis to investigate. Please keep me informed.
    Kind Regards, Pieter de Raad

  • Bui Ha Thanh Phuong from Vietnam says:

    I have played piano for over 3 years ( I’m now 12 years old)
    When I grew up, I used to think that I should stop learning piano. But I’ve changed my ming since I knew this news.
    Thanks to scientists very much !

  • emina2492 says:

    I started playing the piano when I was 13 years old.. it’s been 4 years and I always try to look back on the old me playing the piano. I used to think that I should stop doing those exercises that my teacher instructed me to do everyday: scales, finger exercises, etc. because I’d hear it over and over again. But then again, I can really feel the improvement both on my fingers and in school. My coordination was better than before. I now understood what my teacher was talking about. That and the music that I keep on hearing inspired me to play more.

    This new finding also boosted me. I hope that new researches would come out to prove that piano playing isn’t just for fun but also for your benefit. thank you !

  • oda nous says:

    i play the violin… does this occur to other musicians as well?

  • I couldn’t understand some parts of this article, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  • Zilpah says:

    I started playing piano when I was 11 years old until 18. At age 31, I bought an old piano and started taking lessons again. I’m now 48 and I’m still learning. My life is very full and busy but my piano keeps me happy. It’s a refreshing break in a pressured day. I also learn how to write the notes to the songs that I like. I feel that the piano playing is not only good for my brain but also gives me emotional strenth and clears my head from the worries of the day.
    I would be interested in any other studies on how piano playing affects our health.

  • I play the piano when was 9 y (1949), now inmy 70 y I still enjoy the piano to teach the younger (4-7 y old children). I was always in the first rank in my environment community, as student as well as as officials. I studied in the first rank university in my country, then studied in Japan for transportation training, then I got my my Master of Engineering also abroad (AIT Bangkok). In my carriiers also I always in the top rank. My be the piano influence my brain development during my carrier. Now I enjoy with healthy after retired.
    Sunaryo Joyopuspito – Indonesia

  • James Hau says:

    Just started to learn piano and is progressing well. Yes, I agree with the comments from Sunaryo that learning the piano stimulates the brain and reprograms it through practice. If we choose not to learn new things, as we grow older, our brains will be set with its perfunctory, unthinking and mechanical mode. It will not develop or strengthen any further.

  • Wesselin Angelov says:

    I live with the sounds and the piano more than fifty years /now i’m fifty eight/.It’s commonplace piano music to be positively appreciated, The health benefit and eventually other practical utility may be of value./As a physician i think it’s not easy to be proven./Nevertheles such pragmatic treatment of the music is a kind of relegation.I put it among the greatist expressions of the human soul.Just pressing the keys is not music yet.The piano should be absolutely precisely tunned.Since corrections are usualy necessary almost every week,there is no other way than selftunning.The true musician listents to individual sounds,not merely following the notes in the sheet.Only than may come the great pleassure,the exceptional hapyness.

  • piano course says:

    I play the piano 55 years now since my 7th year. I will not have a fulfilled day-feeling if I dont play the piano. Bach everyday. I am not a soloist but a playful amateur. Las month I thought up the following hypothesis: People who play the piano during their life-time will suffer significantly less from Altheimer than non-musician. I think so simply because of the constant interaction between the 2 brain parts via the Corpus Callosum; less chance of brain atrophy.
    Well maybe a nice thesis to investigate. Please keep me informed.
    Kind Regards,

  • Jake says:

    I took lessons for 3 years somewhere around age 8 to 12 and stopped. I never really touched a piano again untill I was 26. It has been about a year and a half that I have been playing seriously and I have become quite proficient with this instrument. Time, patience, and effort…

    This is an amazing instrument and it has had a profound influence on how I have changed as a person in the last year. As far as I understand it, the piano will reduce your stress level and help relax the mind through stimulating a part of the brain that otherwise isn’t as developed. I began teaching piano because of this and I am also learning as a result. We owe so much to our classical musicians. Thank you all.

  • Floyd Mattoon says:

    The best approach to improving the autistic mind has been to have early intervention. It is so exciting to see the helpfull effects on brain development that come from stimulation at an early postnatal period. I feel that various stimulation procedures will prove to be a real effective way to improve the ASD mind.

  • hector sanchez says:

    I started 1952 learning music. I was 11. I discovered that I was from the beginning able to know which note was played and inspite that I do not play now, I can write any melody (always in C mayor) and read or repeat it much later.
    If I am not thinking, I am repeating mentally melodies with notes.
    Is it not estrange? Does it happen to someone else?

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