Some musicians are better at sight-reading than playing by ear. Are their brains processing information in different ways? Researcher Eriko Aiba set out to answer this difficult question, but the answer is not forthcoming.

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Music is as mysterious as it is prevalent.

Music is almost as ancient as humankind. It is emotive and pleasurable, but, beyond that, music seems to be important in virtually all known cultures.

In 2008, a flute carved from a vulture bone was found in a cave in Germany. It dates back 40,000 years.

Although we will probably never know exactly how music started, it has clearly always been important to human society.

Beyond its cultural meanings and implications, the ability to play music comes with a raft of difficult-to-answer, science-based questions.

For instance, a musical aficionado can make the dots and squiggles on a page into a living, breathing piece of audio pleasure. How is this possible?

The processes involved in reading and playing music are almost unbelievably complex, and we are nowhere near understanding how our brains manage such a feat.

Erika Aiba is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Informatics and Engineering at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo, Japan; she hopes to shed some light on these processes.

When considering a human brain as a computer, playing a musical instrument requires the brain to process a huge amount and variety of information in parallel.

For example, pianists need to read a score, plan the music, search for the keys to be played while planning the motions of their fingers and feet, and control their fingers and feet. They must also adjust the sound intensity and usage of the sustaining pedal according to the output sound.”

Erika Aiba

This type of processing would be too advanced for a computer, so how do our brains cope?

Aiba started learning the piano at the age of 5; she realized early on that musicians can generally be slotted into two groups: those who are best at sight-reading and those who are better at playing by ear. The potential differences in mental processing have always fascinated her.

Aiba will be presenting some of her findings at the 172nd Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the 5th joint meeting with the Acoustical Society of Japan, held from November 28 to December 2 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her talk is titled: “Music signal processing by the human brains: Studies on the strategies used by professional pianists to efficiently sight-read music.”

During her research using professional pianists, it became clear that auditory memory is important for memorizing music following a short period of practicing.

Aiba says “Some were able to memorize almost the entirety of two pages of a complex musical score – despite only 20 minutes of practice.” Aiba and her group of researchers also found that, although two pianists may seem to be playing the piano in a similar way, they have different strategies.

The exact differences proved difficult to pin down, though. Aiba says:

“It’s difficult to validate individual differences […] and the conclusion that ‘the strategy depends on individuals’ could not be assumed to be scientific research. On the other hand, it may now be possible to categorize professional musicians based on their type of prioritizing modality information – in terms of visual and auditory processing.”

Although these investigations into music are interesting, they also have implications for experts in other fields who carry out complex tasks on a daily basis. One particular area of complexity where these types of findings may be relevant is language-learning.

“To learn a language, some people prefer to read phrases aloud repeatedly – combining auditory and motion information. Others prefer to write phrases repeatedly – combining visual and motion information,” Aiba explained. “But some prefer to simply read – visual information. They’re all studying a language, but their brains are processing the information in different ways, depending on the strategy best suited to them.”

This is a difficult topic to study – music is a fickle mistress to control. Ian Cross, director of the Centre for Music and Science at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, is an expert in music perception and the only faculty member to have turned down the opportunity to join the Bay City Rollers; he once said:

“Music is a bit too wild to be trapped in the lab.”

This is undoubtedly true. However, by chipping away at the edifice, chunks of understanding will no doubt fall forth over time.

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