Making Music as a Model for Brain Plasticity

Sensory-motor skills of musicians have some specific qualities: learning begins at an early age in a playful atmosphere. Routines for stereotyped movements are rehearsed for extended periods of time with gradually increasing degrees of complexity. Via auditory feedback, the motor performance is extremely controllable by both, performer and audience. All movements are strongly linked to emotions, – pleasure or anxiety - , processed by the limbic system. These specific circumstances seem to play an important role for plastic adaptation at several levels of the central nervous system.

In the lecture, I focus on the functional and anatomical changes of cortical and subcortical brain regions observed in beginner and advanced musicians. Plastic adaptations of the auditory as well as the sensory-motor system are not only reflected in functional but also in morphological changes. Auditory-sensorimotor integration is accompanied by rapid modulations of neuronal connectivity in the time range of 20 minutes. I will then present new data on functional plasticity in musicians casting some doubt on the quality of “everlasting plasticity” of the brain. I furthermore will demonstrate that motor disturbances such as musician’s dystonia are either linked to psychological traits, or to basal ganglia dysfunction. Here, anxiety, reinvestment and dysfunctional plasticity play an important role. Finally, I will present a new model accounting for our findings concerning the triggering factors of musician’s dystonia.


Eckart Altenmüller holds a Masters degree in Classical flute, and a MD and PhD degree in Neurology and Neurophysiology. Since 1994 he has been chair and director of the Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians' Medicine at the University of Music and Drama in Hannover, Germany. He continues research into the neurobiology of emotions and into movement disorders in musicians as well as motor, auditory and sensory learning. In his outpatient clinic he sees 500 musicians a year, mostly suffering from movement disorders such as focal dystonia, focal tremor or from chronic pain syndromes. During the last ten years he has received 20 grants from the German Research Society (DFG). He is currently Vice President of the German Society of Music Physiology and Musicians' Medicine and Member of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences. He is also co-editor of the book, Music, Motor Control and the Brain.

Date & time

Tue 19 Mar 2019, 4.30–5.45pm


Theatrette, Sir Roland Wilson Building


Professor Eckart Altenmüller, (Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine)

Event series


Humanities Research Centre
+61 2 6125 4357


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