Listening as practice: mirror neurons and music, part V

I still remember Sue’s performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata on her senior recital.  I knew from hearing her earlier in a masterclass that her concept of the sonata was epic – distant machine gun fire in the opening repeated chords, various musical depictions of war in the first movement, death in the second, and angels in heaven in the third.

Beethoven Sonata, Op. 53
Beethoven Sonata, Op. 53

I had met Sue when she arrived from Bangkok at the age of sixteen to study piano at a major American music school.  She had lots of fingers (as pianists say), but little sense of style. But by the time she was finishing her four-year degree, members of the piano faculty all spoke about her amazing sense of performance style and how wonderfully she communicated the essence of the music, whether she was playing Beethoven or a piece written the previous week. The story she constructed for the Waldstein may have contributed to her stunning performance of the work – but so did her auditory mirror neurons.

The mirror neuron system (MNS) was initially thought to be visual, an action-observation system that allowed an individual to understand the meaning and intention of an action or movement by mirroring in the individual’s own brain.  But then, a subset of premotor mirror neurons was found to be audiovisual – they represented actions in the brain whether the action was seen or heard.  I’ve already written about visual mirror neurons (or action-observation).  So what about auditory mirror neurons? 

Our auditory mirror neuron system is at work on a daily basis. You hear someone knocking at the door and you instantly know that means that someone is there, even if you are in another room and haven’t seen anyone, because your brain has a representation of knocking so you know what it means.   You recognize applause even if you hear it on a recording, and you know whether it is enthusiastic or tepid, because you have participated in applause, and your brain has a representation of that sound.

In the early 2000s, several studies were done in which pianists’ brains were scanned as they listened to music that they knew. The auditory cortex was active in these subjects, as would be expected, but so was the motor cortex, even though they weren’t playing. Other studies showed that silent fingering of a piece produced activity in the motor cortex, again as expected, but also in the auditory cortex. And this co-activation between motor and auditory happened very quickly. The research confirmed a very strong link between auditory and motor areas of the brain in musicians, and I wrote about this in my last post. That strong connection, on which we rely in making music, is often called the auditory-motor loop.

In the mid-2000s, further studies were done scanning pianists’ brains as they listened to music, and motor areas were again observed to be active. But by this time, researchers realized that what they were seeing was, in fact, a mirror neuron network because the areas of the brain being activated were consistent with areas of the brain where a mirror neuron network had been identified.   Some of these studies cited the earlier research mentioned above as further evidence of mirror neurons in musicians.  Although the earlier studies hadn’t labeled the brain activity they observed as the mirror neuron network, it was, in fact, the same.

So there is a great deal of evidence that there is an auditory mirror neuron system in musicians.

In another study from the mid-2000s, non-musicians were taught to play a five-finger melody by ear. Researchers then monitored brain activity as the participants listened to the piece. Although they listened without making any movement, activity was found in motor networks. When the pitches from the piece they had learned were presented in a different order in another piece, there was still some activity in the motor networks, but not as much. And when they listened to a piece with totally different pitches, there was no activation of the motor network.

So it has become clear that musicians have not only a visual mirror neuron network but an auditory network as well. And this, of course, is extremely important as we learn music. It doesn’t matter whether you are a professional pianist or a non-musician who has just been taught a 5-finger melody. When you listen to a melody or piece you know, the motor areas of your brain are making the motor plans necessary to play that piece or melody.

But there is also evidence that even if you are listening to a piece you don’t know, there will be some activity in the motor cortex because your brain will be mirroring familiar or similar rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic patterns.  And we know from the discussion of visual mirror neurons that seeing someone else performing on your instrument also activates the motor cortex.

So listening is crucial. Imagine what it means if every time we listen to music, whether recorded or live, and whether it is music we play or not, the auditory areas of our brain are active, but so are the motor areas – even when we are not playing.

Suppose you are learning Beethoven op. 111. You know the piece quite well, and have a fairly clear idea about how you want to play it. You listen to three or four recordings of the work, and you are also able to hear a live performance by a well-known pianist whose playing you really admire. In those four or five performances, you will hear a variety of interpretations, each one involving different motor execution. Tempi will be different in places, ritardandi and accelerandi will vary, dynamics and phrasing will differ. Because of your auditory mirror neurons, the motor areas of your brain are activated, as though you yourself are playing, with each different interpretation that you hear.

Cognitively, you will think about the different interpretations and perhaps adapt some ideas and discard others. But strictly from an unconscious motor level, the motor areas of your brain have been activated and have planned every motor movement necessary to create the different interpretations that you hear. Does that mean you would instantly be able to imitate someone else’s interpretation? Of course not.  But because your motor areas will have been activated in response to hearing a different interpretation, you will be primed to be able to learn it, and you can build upon that should you choose to do so.

Sue attended virtually every concert at the school during the four years she was there. If there was an admission charge, she volunteered to usher so she could go to the concert for free. By the end of her four years, she had heard an amazing amount of repertoire in a variety of styles and genres. I suspect she had also listened to a lot of recordings.

Her mirror neurons had been activated strongly when she listened to music that she herself was playing – but they were also activated to some extent when she listened to music she didn’t know because many sound patterns and movement patterns were already familiar to her brain.  Certainly there was a lot of cognitive processing going on, as she thought about the different performances and interpretations, but there was also, through mirror neurons, a great deal of unconscious learning that contributed to her becoming such a spectacular pianist.

So if mirror neurons have such a significant effect on us as musicians, what effect do you suppose they have on the audience? More on that next time.



4 responses to “Listening as practice: mirror neurons and music, part V”

  1. Michael Taylor Avatar
    Michael Taylor

    *Shared on Facebook*
    Interesting post and it all makes complete sense. I’ll be very curious to read the follow up regarding the audience in general next time!

    1. Lois Avatar

      Hi Michael, In some ways, I think the effect of mirror neurons on the audience is the most interesting. I’ll get to that soon – I hope.

  2. ML Brinkman Avatar
    ML Brinkman

    Within the last year, I started using Eurhythmics exercises to teach meter, articulation, and dynamics to my beginning piano students. I have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly these new students have learned to differentiate between staccato, legato, and non-legato sounds – and their ability to replicate these sounds at the piano. If these students mess up the articulation in a piece, before I can correct them, they tell me, “Mrs. Brinkman, I didn’t connect all the sounds. It wasn’t legato enough. Let me fix it.” The auditory-motor loop and auditory mirror neurons explains why these students have mastered these concepts so well and so quickly. It makes me wonder what other concepts I can teach through whole-body movement.

    1. Lois Avatar

      Thanks for the comment. Great idea to teach articulation through whole-body movement. Phrasing is another concept that many students respond to through movement. And style. If they can dance a waltz, for example, it goes a long way towards playing it well.