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Musical Skills and Neural Functions

The Legacy of the Brains of Musicians


Address for correspondence: Dr. M. Bentivoglio, Department of Morphological and Biomedical Sciences, Medical Faculty, Strada Le Grazie 8, 37134 Verona, Italy. Voice: +39-045-8027158; Fax: +39-045-8027163;


Abstract: An overview of the history of debates on the correlation of musical skills with neurological functions in health and disease is presented. Selected biographical sketches of composers (Hildegard von Bingen, Mozart, Donizetti, Mussorgsky, and Ravel), whose neurological disease may have influenced musical creativity, are discussed. The search for information on the localization of skills in the brains of musicians is reviewed. The relation of mental ability to brain structure is a prominent theme in the history of neuroscience, and the effort to localize musical skills dates back to the excesses of phrenology in the early nineteenth century. The phrenological tables included an “organ of music” among the sites subserving intellectual capabilities, mapped on the basis of palpation of the head bumps. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, when the study of brain physiology, anatomy, and pathology had a remarkable development and impact on the neurosciences, structural features of the brain, particularly the cerebral cortex, of individuals with peculiar talents, including musical skills, have been examined to search for clues on the localization of mental phenomena. These studies, which continued in the twentieth century, are currently difficult to validate in view of the rigor imposed by current scientific standards. However, the issue of localization of functions in the musical brain is still debated and is now at the forefront of the neurosciences, exploiting especially functional neuroimaging. The historical overview of these problems is certainly exemplary of progress of knowledge, but also warns against excessive “localizationist” efforts.