Variations on the theme of musical expertise: cognitive and sensory processing in percussionists, vocalists and non-musicians

Eur J Neurosci. 2017 Apr;45(7):952-963. doi: 10.1111/ejn.13535. Epub 2017 Feb 27.


Comparisons of musicians and non-musicians have revealed enhanced cognitive and sensory processing in musicians, with longitudinal studies suggesting these enhancements may be due in part to experience-based plasticity. Here, we investigate the impact of primary instrument on the musician signature of expertise by assessing three groups of young adults: percussionists, vocalists, and non-musician controls. We hypothesize that primary instrument engenders selective enhancements reflecting the most salient acoustic features to that instrument, whereas cognitive functions are enhanced regardless of instrument. Consistent with our hypotheses, percussionists show more precise encoding of the fast-changing acoustic features of speech than non-musicians, whereas vocalists have better frequency discrimination and show stronger encoding of speech harmonics than non-musicians. There were no strong advantages to specialization in sight-reading vs. improvisation. These effects represent subtle nuances to the signature since the musician groups do not differ from each other in these measures. Interestingly, percussionists outperform both non-musicians and vocalists in inhibitory control. Follow-up analyses reveal that within the vocalists and non-musicians, better proficiency on an instrument other than voice is correlated with better inhibitory control. Taken together, these outcomes suggest the more extensive engagement of motor systems during instrumental practice may be an important factor for enhancements in inhibitory control, consistent with evidence for overlapping neural circuitry involved in both motor and cognitive control. These findings contribute to the ongoing refinement of the musician signature of expertise and may help to inform the use of music in training and intervention to strengthen cognitive function.

Keywords: auditory processing; expertise; music; speech.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Auditory Perception*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cognition*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Skills
  • Music*
  • Neural Inhibition
  • Neuronal Plasticity