Figure 1: Music cues can be utilized for motor learning and can alter brain structure

Music Affects Brain Structure

By Rideeta Raquib ’19

Figure 1: Music cues can be utilized for motor learning and can alter brain structure
Figure 1: Music cues can be utilized for motor learning and can alter brain structure

Whether it be going out for a jog or driving a car, our day-to-day physical movements are often coordinated with music. Recently, researchers have harnessed music and employed auditory cues in response to musical stimuli to enhance movement learning and rehabilitation. Previous studies have shown that musicians tend to have a higher fractional anisotropy (FA) values than non-musicians. FA is a scale from zero to one that measures water diffusion in the brain, whereby zero indicates unrestricted movement. A study conducted at the University of Edinburgh hypothesized that motor training coordinated with music cues can cause an increase in FA in the arcuate fasciculus, which connects the Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas in the brain. The Wernicke’s area is a region of the cerebral cortex that is involved in extracting meaning from the sound of spoken word and the Broca’s area is involved in speech.

Thirty right-handed participants were assigned to a motor learning condition that was either accompanied or not accompanied by music. Individuals performing the motor learning without music behaved as the control group. The motor training involved finger to thumb movements that were based on choreographed sequences displayed visually via animation. For the music group, temporal cues were administered, whereby a certain pitch indicated which finger to move. The training sessions were administered for 20 minutes three times a week over a span of four weeks. Diffusion tensor MRI and probabilistic neighborhood tractography were used to determine FA, as well as axial (AD) and radial (RD) diffusivity prior to training and after. Radial refers to perpendicular or longitudinal water movement as opposed to axial, which refers to parallel movement. These measurements will indicate the changes that might occur in white matter pathways in the brain before and after motor training, as well as whether music has any implications on these pathways.

Overall, the results indicated a significant increase in the FA values in the right arcuate fasciculus of the music group only. This study indicates that musical cues to motor training can lead to changes in brain structure, which opens doors for applying music therapy for rehabilitation purposes.



  1. Emma Moore, Rebecca S. Schaefer, Mark E. Bastin, Neil Roberts, Katie Overy. Diffusion tensor MRI tractography reveals increased fractional anisotropy (FA) in arcuate fasciculus following music-cued motor training. Brain and Cognition, 2017; 116: 40 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandc.2017.05.001
  2. Image retrieved from:

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