Photo courtesy of McGill University

What makes a rock star’s brain tick, and how might a professional musician hear music differently than the average person?

To help better understand how our brains, and the brains of expert musicians, perceive and understand music, Police frontman, Sting, had his brain scanned via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Cognitive neuroscientist, Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, monitored Sting's brain activity while he listened to various songs and while silently composing a new song in his head. Dr. Levitin was interested in finding out the way an expert musician's brain responds and connects to music.

Dr. Levitin poses the question: “How do experts attain their skill and creativity? To what extent is their achievement based on differences in neuroanatomy or genetic propensities?”

“One of the biggest unsolved puzzles in contemporary cognitive neuroscience concerns the nature of expertise," says Levitin. "For expert musicians there are relevant questions concerning the mental representations of music, and how perception, cognition, and memory interact.”(1)

When given two dissimilar songs – 'Girl' by The Beatles and 'A Tango' by Astor Piazzolla – Dr. Levitin expected Sting's brain to react very differently to each song, but, to Dr. Levitin's surprise, Sting's brain reacted similarly to each, his brain activating many of the same areas.

Sting's musically trained mind was able to pick up on things that an average person would never have noticed, like commonalities between certain melodies, rhythmic patterns and the key of the songs.

Research such as this breathes insight into our relationship with music and even how music is created. When asked to silently compose a piece of music, Sting's brain activity looked much different than when asked to silently compose a piece of prose or to imagine painting a picture.

As we saw in our latest multimedia feature, Synapse, it is already possible to convert brainwaves into sounds and even to recreate imagined sounds just by analyzing a subject’s brain waves. As cognitive neuroscience and music move closer together we may start seeing entire musical compositions created just by thinking.

Dr. Levitin is fascinated by the minds of experts such as Sting. He says that certain people are born with traits giving them an affinity in certain areas and that experts spend their lives nurturing these traits. If any other expert musicians want their brains scanned his doors are open.

(1)  Measuring the representational space of music with fMRI: a case study with Sting (