The language of music… and a bit of football

6 July 2017

This post is also available in: Dutch

Successful musicians put in hours of practice from an early age. The same is true for most top footballers. But is all that practice really necessary ? Is talent alone – with a bit pf practice – not enough ? Successful scientists start working in their field of interest at a much later age, and the best therapists too. These late starters do have some specific characteristics from a young age, such as curiosity or empathy, but they only start practicing the specific job-related skills at a later age. For career musicians and footballers, you are too late if you only start practicing when you are 15 or 20. Why?

Motor skills training

After training fingers 2,3 and 4, a larger area of the somatosensory cortex is in use

I do know of one explanation. Playing a musical instrument or with a football requires very specific, refined motor skills. Developing and maintaining these needs a lot of training. What changes does this training bring about in the brain? Each point of the fingers is connected to neurons in the cortex of your brain. These neurons are collectively responsible for the sensitivity of the fingers. Previously we thought that the connections between fingers and the cortex were formed in the young child and then remained fixed and unchangeable like a street map in a city. Of course you can change a street map, but then you would have to break down half the city, or at the very least a number of houses.
It turns out however that these brain connections can be changed relatively easily. The example below with monkeys illustrates this. On the left you see the areas of the cortex that represent the five fingers. The monkeys were trained to rotate a platform with the tips of their middle three fingers in order to get food. This was an intensive and refined movement. After three months the areas in the cortex for those three fingers had increased in size. This means that more and finer connections were laid down for those fingers.
This research cannot be replicated with musicians, because electrodes needed to be implanted in the monkeys’ brains for the experiment. But brain scans in humans have demonstrated similar effects. For instance that pianists’ brains show differences compared to those of non-pianists, with the two halves working better in harmony. This may be related to pianists having to move their hands independently of one another but very precisely coordinated, which is not so easy. The right hand is controlled by the left hemisphere and the left hand by the right hemisphere of the brain. The movement of the hands is tuned in such a way in the human brain that symmetrical movements take place more naturally than parallel movements. So moving both hands outwards – the left to the left and the right to the right – is easier than moving both hands to the right at the same time. It is much more difficult to move the hands and fingers independently of each other in time and space. I wouldn’t dream of trying. But a pianist must be able to do this effortlessly.

Learnt young, laid down forever

Practice, therefore, makes perfect, and produces a modified cortex. But I have not yet explained why musicians have to start practicing at such an early age to reach the top. The brains of the monkeys in the experiment showed changes after three months, so they did not have to practice ten years for this. Musicians have to learn more than just fine movements in order to play their instrument. Hearing plays an important role, and indeed the musician’s auditory cortex does change too. The musician’s brain has to process much more. The following aspect may explain why starting early is necessary and important. Young children who practice music learn to read better, differentiate similar (language) sounds better, and learn a new language better. This is already apparent at the age of three years, but accompanies musicians into their adulthood.
It appears, thus, that there is a connection between language and music. And learning a language is much easier at a (very) young age. My granddaughter, who is eight years old, has lived in China from when she was four and until quite recently. After one year of living there, her Chinese was indistinguishable from a native child’s. Her parents could not equal this after four years and much study. They could just about make themselves understood. One important explanation for this is that the neurons and their connections in the cortex of a young child increase rapidly, and therefore new information can be effortlessly absorbed. And then this is laid down in the neurons and connections, burnt in as it were. Because of this the children continue into adulthood to benefit from not only a better-differentiated sense of language but also a feel for music. That quick learning and laying down, the burning in of circuitry, can only occur in a child but not in an adult. The neurons do not increase as quickly in an adult. Top footballers appear in the meantime to have vanished from this story. They do not in any case create the impression of having a very well developed sense of language differentiation.

Can you create a genius?

You might think that musical training would help your young child improve in language and intelligence…but that is the question. In the first place there is the question of whether musicians have a better language sense because of the music practice or because they are born with it, or a combination of both1. And secondly, it is not described anywhere just how big the difference is between musicians and non-musicians. If I look at the articles, then the actual difference in language sense is disappointingly modest. Many factors play a role in learning language skills and the individual contribution of each of these factors is quite small. So you cannot make every child into a little language genius by providing a musical education at a young age. It may however tip the balance in favour of a successful musician.

Strait, D. L., S. O’Connell, et al. (2014). Musicians’ Enhanced Neural Differentiation of Speech Sounds Arises Early in Life: Developmental Evidence from Ages 3 to 30. Cerebral Cortex 24(9): 2512-2521.
Yang, H., W. Ma, et al. (2014). A longitudinal study on children’s music training experience and academic development. Scientific reports 4: 5854.
Bailey, J. A., R. J. Zatorre, et al. (2014). Early musical training is linked to gray matter structure in the ventral premotor cortex and auditory-motor rhythm synchronization performance. Journal of cognitive neuroscience 26(4): 755-767.
White, E. J., S. A. Hutka, et al. (2013). Learning, neural plasticity and sensitive periods: implications for language acquisition, music training and transfer across the lifespan. Frontiers in systems neuroscience 7: 90.
Globerson, E. and I. Nelken (2013). The neuro-pianist. Frontiers in systems neuroscience 7: 35.
Steele, C. J., J. A. Bailey, et al. (2013). Early musical training and white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum: evidence for a sensitive period. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience 33(3): 1282-1290.
Lappe, C., L. J. Trainor, et al. (2011). Cortical plasticity induced by short-term multimodal musical rhythm training. PloS one 6(6): e21493.
Figuur: Fig. 17-7, Principles of Neural Science, 5th Ed., 2013, ISBN 978-0-07-181001-8


  1. In none of the investigations is the possibility excluded that it is just inborn disposition and not training.

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