The Physical and Mental Benefits and Requirements of Playing the Saxophone: A Look at Grey Matter's Role

The saxophone is an aerobically demanding instrument: it requires the saxophonist to maintain enough of an oxygen intake to support his or her biological processes, while simultaneously pushing enough air through the saxophone to produce a beautiful tone that is in tune throughout the instrument's entire range. The saxophone demands a lot from its player both physically and mentally, but it also provides several physical and mental benefits to the saxophonist. For example, playing a musical instrument like the saxophone can lead to long-term brain benefits, such as an increase in the brain's volume of grey matter.

Gaser and Schlaug's Grey Matter Study:

In October of 2003, neuro-scientists Christian Gaser, Ph.D. and Gottfried Schlaug, Ph.D. released a study in The Journal of Neuroscience that cited a difference in the brain's gray matter of musicians, when compared to non-musicians. Gaser and Schlaug brought together a group of 20 male professional musicians, 20 male amateur musicians, and 40 male non-musicians.  All 80 individuals were of similar age and verbal IQ:

  • 20 professional musicians: average age 23.05 years; average verbal IQ: 119.23
  • 20 amateur musicians: average age: 25.95 years; average verbal IQ: 122.57
  • 40 non-musicians; average age: 26.92 years; average verbal IQ: 118.18

Gaser and Schlaug imaged the brains of all 80 participants using a high-resolution 1.5 T Seimens Vision whole-body scanner. The study then used an automatic computational analysis technique known as VBM (Voxel-based morphometry) to determine if there were any differences in the volume of brain grey matter between each of the three groups. The amount of grey matter in a human brain is an important metric because the grey matter's primary functions are muscle control, sensory perception, and memory.

Gaser and Schlaug's Findings:

Gaser and Schlaug found that the professional musicians had the highest volume of brain grey matter, followed by the amateur musicians. The non-musicians had the lowest volume of grey matter of all three groups. It is important to note that all of the musicians in the Gaser and Schlaug study were pianists, but it logically stands to reason that one would see similar results if he or she were to perform the same study on a group of professional saxophonists, amateur saxophonists, and non-musicians.

Arkin et al.'s study on the correlation between grey matter and creativity of musical improvisation:

In 2019, Arkin et al. released a study in which they looked at the correlation between grey matter volume and the creativity of improvisation measured in a group of musicians. Similarly to Gaser and Schlaug, Arkin et al. used magnetic resonance imaging and VBM analysis to measure the volume of grey matter in the study's subjects. Their findings: the improvisational creativity of subjects was positively correlated with the amount of grey matter in the brain regions associated with memory formation, sensory perception and integration, learning, and perceptual categorization.

So given these two studies, we know that studying and playing music increases the volume of the brain's grey matter (Gaser and Schlaug), and we know that increased grey matter volume leads to better improvisational abilities (Arkin et al). The next logical conclusion would be that a musician could hypothetically increase his or her musical potential by engaging in other activities that increase the volume of grey matter in the brain. Gaser and Schlaug lead us to the conclusion that practicing a musical instrument routinely increases the volume of grey matter in a musician's brain. What are the effects of physical exercise on the volume of grey matter in the brain?

The next step in my research was to Google the following phrase: "What are some activities that increase the volume of grey matter in the human brain?" The number one peer-reviewed result was a 2014 review of studies by Erickson et al. They concluded that "higher cardiorespiratory fitness levels are routinely associated with greater gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, and less consistently in other regions."

So we now know that cardiorespiratory fitness is associated with higher grey matter volumes in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, but how does this affect one's musical ability or musical potential? Klinge reports that Arne Dietrich, a professor of psychology at the American University of Beirut, has proposed a model in which the prefrontal cortex plays a very significant role in creative activity. 

Summary and Conclusions

Given all of the information in the  research cited above, I believe that it is fair to make the following conclusions regarding one developing into a master professional saxophonist:

  • Cardiorespiratory exercise increases cardiorepiratory fitness which in turn increases the volume of grey matter in the brain's regions associated with memory, creativity, and motor skills. Hence, a saxophonist should hypothetically benefit from activities that are cardiorepsiratorically demanding such as running, bike-riding, the elliptical machine etc. 
  • The brain's grey matter volume benefits from both saxophone practice AND from intense physical exercise, so a saxophonist should make room for both in his or her schedule and regimen.
  • From the all of the information studied in this article, I find it reasonable to conclude that  physical fitness could theoretically improve one's creative abilities on the saxophone.

In the next article in this series, I will look at nutrition: is there a nutritional regimen that would be beneficial to a saxophonist who wants to have a very long and successful career?

 

References:

  1. Arkin et al. (2019, May). Gray Matter Correlates of Creativity in Musical Improvisation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00169/full
  2. Erickson et al. (2014, September). Physical activity, fitness, and gray matter volume. Neurobiol Aging. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4094356/pdf/nihms598562.pdf
  3. Gaser, Christian and Schlaug, Gottfried. (2003, October 8). Brain Structures Differ between Musicians and Non-Musicians. The Journal of Neuroscience. Retrieved from https://www.jneurosci.org/content/jneuro/23/27/9240.full.pdf
  4. Grey Matter. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_matter
  5. Klinge, Kylah Goodfellow. (2016, March 21). Mapping Creativity in the Brain. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/the-driving-principles-behind-creativity/474621/
  6. Voxel-based morphometry. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voxel-based_morphometry
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