The fingers and language of a top pianist

Peter MolemanArticles, Brain developmentLeave a Comment

De vingers en de taal van een toppianist | Peter Moleman

Translated by Rumia Bose

This post is a revised version of “The language of music… and a bit of football” published on 6-07-2017

Successful musicians put in innumerable hours of practice from an early age. The same is true for most top footballers. Why do they need all that practice? Is having talent not enough? The best scientists and therapists start training in their field at a much later age. For musicians and footballers, if you only start practicing when you are 15 or 20 years old, you are too late to reach the top. Why?

Feeling your body

I do know of one explanation. Playing a music instrument or with a football requires very specific, refined motor skills. In order to develop and maintain these you need a precise and detailed perception of what goes on in your body. For this you need your somatosensory cortex ( soma= body and sensor= feeling, the part of the cortex concerned with body perception). In Fig. 1 you see the human somatosensory cortex. In Fig. 2 you see that the whole body is projected onto this cortex; each body part has it’s own bit of cortical representation. 

Fig. 1 The human somatosensory cortex
Source: Anatomography maintained by Life Science Databases(LSDB), CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp .
Fig. 2 Projection of body parts on the somatosensory cortex (called “the homunculus”)
OpenStax College – Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. CC BY 3.0

Practising movement

In Fig. 3 you see the changes after one finger is trained. On the left you see the areas of the somatosensory cortex that represent the five fingers. Sensation in the fingers is registered here. In this experiment, a monkey was trained to rotate a platform with the tip of its index finger in order to get food. On the right you see that within a few weeks the area for the index finger had increased in size.This means that more and finer connections with this finger were laid down in the somatosensory cortex, and that the monkey has increased and subtler sensitivity in that finger. Previously, we believed that the connections between hand and cortex, or between fingers and cortex are formed early in childhood and remain fixed and  unchangeable thereafter. It now appears that these connections in our brain can be adapted with relative ease.

The language of music… and a bit of football. Peter Moleman
Fig. 1 Schematic representation of the somatosensory cortex connected to the fingertips. 1=thumb, 2=indexfinger etc., before and after training the index finger

This research cannot be replicated with musicians, because electrodes needed to be implanted in the monkey’s brains for the experiment. But brain scans in humans have demonstrated similar effects. In addition scans show adaptations of the right and left halves of pianists’ brains resulting in working together in better 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 movement of the hands is tuned in such a way that it is easier to execute symmetrical movements as compared to 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. But 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.

Music and language

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 has lived in China from her fourth to eighth year. 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. New information can therefore be assimilated effortlessly. And then this is laid down in the neurons and connections. Each form of knowledge or skill has its own critical period. This means that acquiring this knowledge or skill takes a lot more effort after this period. See also Growth and pruning: the brain of a child.

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 a disposition for it, or a combination of practice and disposition1In none of the investigations is the possibility excluded that it is just inborn disposition and not training.. And secondly, the actual difference in language sense between musicians and non-musicians 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.
You often hear of people who are very successful in their field saying : look what you can achieve if you make sure you give it your everything. But that is misleading. Just ask all those people who gave their everything, but came nowhere near the top in their field. Without exceptional aptitude this really does not work. 


Gordon RL, Fehd HM, McCandliss BD (2015): Does Music Training Enhance Literacy Skills? A Meta-Analysis. Front Psychol 6:1777.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *