Home Sciences Scientists discover how the brain turns an idea into music

Scientists discover how the brain turns an idea into music


German scientists have discovered how the brain converts a musical idea into the movement of the fingers when we play the piano, and that when we play a duet, our brains share the same wavelength.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main and the Max Planck Institute for Human Brain and Cognitive Sciences in Leipzig have identified the region of the brain that converts a musical idea into finger movement when playing the piano.

A second investigation by both institutes has also been able to establish that when two people play the piano in duet, their brains share the same “wavelength” during the performance.

Playing an instrument presents an enormous challenge to our brain. Exactly how the brain masters the complex coordination tasks required to meet that challenge has been the subject of two new studies by Max Planck scientists.

When playing the piano, pianists are involved in planning two things in parallel: they must coordinate what is played, i.e. which note or chord is to follow, and how it is played, i.e. exactly which fingers should play the chords. keys.

One of the research teams has discovered where exactly these planning steps take place in the brain.

adapted piano

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a technique used to identify the location of brain activity. It typically involves study participants lying horizontally inside a narrow tube situated within a strong magnetic field, a position that, for obvious reasons, makes it impossible to examine pianists while they play the piano.

To overcome this limitation, the research team cooperated with the Blüthner piano factory in Leipzig to develop a first-of-its-kind MRI-compatible piano with 27 keys that uses a light wire to record participants’ keystrokes. .

In this special piano, 26 individual pianists were asked to play chord sequences based on images in the MRI scanner.

two brain networks

What this showed was that two different brain networks were activated, respectively, by the what and how planning steps.

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The researchers were particularly impressed by the fact that both networks contained the left lateral prefrontal cortex, a frontal region of the brain that is especially important in planning all everyday actions.

“A particular feature of this region is its degree of specialization: while the front end implements fairly abstract planning steps, these processes become increasingly refined the further back they are in the region. Planning becomes more and more concrete, what translates into how”, explains the first author Roberta Bianco.

In the case of this study, this process corresponds to the translation of a musical idea into finger movements on the piano. The researchers identified the prefrontal cortex as the key region that coordinates the relationship between a musical composition and finger movements during solo performance.

From solo performance to duet

If such complex processes are activated in the brains of solo pianists when they play simple chord sequences, then performing music together with others must be an even greater challenge for the brain.

After all, musicians not only need to plan and implement their own performance, but also coordinate and adapt it to the performances of others.

Since these two things cannot be done at the same time, musicians must prioritize what they focus on while playing: the precise execution of their own performance or the fit of their actions with those of the other musicians.

To find out exactly how these coordination processes occur between musicians, researchers from the two Max Planck Institutes conducted a second study in which they examined the brains of pianists playing in duets.

brain synchronization

“When people coordinate their actions, for example, when they dance or sing together, their brain waves are also synchronized,” explains Daniela Sammler, director of the research teams. “This phenomenon is called ‘intercerebral synchrony’.”

One obvious cause of such synchrony is that musicians are doing and listening to similar things at the same time. But the scientists wanted to find out if the coordination process between partners playing a duet was also reflected in synchronous brain waves.

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To do this, they invited 14 pairs of pianists to perform short piano duets together. They recorded the brain waves of the 28 musicians using electroencephalography (EEG).

One pianist played the melody with his right hand, while the other played the bass clef with his left. All pieces contained a musical pause in the middle, during which no sound was produced.

complex musical coordination

The research team used this pause to study their brain activity: both pianists were asked to play the part that came after the pause at a different time than the score, indicating various ways to do it (some contradictory).

First author Katarzyna Gugnowska sums up what happened: “This manipulation made a real difference in the synchronicity of the two brains during the break: if both pianists planned to play at the same time, the synchronicity was high. However, if the assigned tempos were different, it was low. In addition, brainwave synchronicity also predicted how similar the pianists’ respective tempos were after the break.”

These results suggest that brainwave synchronization between musicians is not just a byproduct, triggered by shared auditory impressions and the music itself, but is actually a mechanism that both brains use to coordinate their performances with each other.

Taken together, these studies provide significant evidence of the complex coordination involved in making music, not only between the brain and hand of a solo musician, but also between musicians when performing in concert.


Lateral Prefrontal Cortex Is a Hub for Music Production from Structural Rules to Movements. Roberta Bianco et al. Cerebral Cortex, bhab454. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhab454

Endogenous Sources of Interbrain Synchrony in Duetting Pianists. Katarzyna Gugnowska et al. Cerebral Cortex, bhab469.DOI:https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhab469

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