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Piano Playing – A Public Health Concept?

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 UllĂ©n.

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 UllĂ©n 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 UllĂ©n 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 UllĂ©n, “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.


PIANIST FREDRIK ULLÉN

Swedish pianist Fredrik UllĂ©n was educated at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, but cites Finnish pianist Liisa Pohjola as being his primary influence. UllĂ©n is a highly skilled virtuoso who specializes in Sorabji, the Stockhausen KlavierstĂŒcke, the Ligeti etudes, and other works requiring a high degree of transcendental skill. He also works extensively with living composers such as György KurtĂĄg, Mauricio Kagel, George Flynn and BarnabĂĄs Dukay. He has recorded for Pro Piano and Caprice labels, but since 1996 has primarily recorded for Swedish label BIS. UllĂ©n’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 Ă©tudes, 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), RecommandĂ© (RĂ©pertoire), and Recomendado (CD Compact). UllĂ©n 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

www.fredrikullen.com


/patrick
 
     



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