Healthcare Practitioners: Medical Musicians

By Bonnie Hutchinson

If you want to see and hear spontaneous improvised brilliance, be in a room where experienced musicians are jamming. They’re not so much playing as playing around. They’re sparking off one another, creating new sounds and rhythms for the sheer joy of it.

One musician starts riffing on a guitar. Percussion kicks in with a more exciting rhythm. Keyboard picks up the cues and plunks out a melody and chords in the right key. Bass picks up the rhythm and adds a counter-melody. And then they bob and weave, tossing the lead to one another, mixing it up and taking the sound in surprising directions.

Yes, this does have a connection to healthcare practitioners. But first let’s talk about music and the brain, because what happens in the brain of a musician is the same process that happens in the brain of a healthcare practitioner.


So how did musicians get there?

How can musicians hear a few notes and, without written music or a conductor, begin to play something in the right key at the right speed, and then improvise simultaneously with other musicians, all of them making it up as they go along?

To grossly over-simplify, through brain development.

Let’s walk through what happens in the brain to make that possible.

Over the past few decades, brain researchers have studied in great detail how musical training affects the brain. They’ve also studied how those effects make possible extraordinary musical performance.

One of the early studies was led by the psychologist Edward Taub, working with four German scientists.[1]  The research team recruited six right-handed violinists to have their brains scanned. They also recruited six non-musicians as a control group.

The team was interested in the fingers on the musicians’ left hands because playing the violin requires extreme control of left hand fingers. Those are the fingers that move up and down the neck of the violin and from string to string, sometimes at incredible speeds. They need to press down on exactly the right position of the string to play the correct notes. The left fingers may also slide or vibrate to create different types of sound, like vibrato.

Violin players use fingers on the right hand much less. Right fingers are merely part of the right hand moving the bow across the strings. Most of a violin player’s training is concentrated on improving control of the left hand fingers.

The Taub team’s research question was, what effect does this training have on the brain?


Taub’s team used a magnetoencephalography, a machine that maps out brain activity by detecting tiny magnetic fields in the brain. From that, they could tell what part of the brain controlled which finger.

They found that the region of the brain that controls the left hand fingers was much larger in the musician’s brains than in the non-musicians’ brains. In contrast, in the size of the brain region that controlled the right hand fingers, the researchers found no difference between the musicians and the non-musicians.

In the decades since, other researchers have expanded the results and described a variety of ways that musical training affects brain structures and functions. For example, the cerebellum, which helps to control movement, is larger in musicians than in non-musicians. The more hours of training the musician has put in, the larger the cerebellum is. As well, compared to non-musicians, musicians have more grey matter (which contains neurons) in parts of the cortex that control specific movements.[2]

There’s an even bigger conclusion. Musical training modifies the structure and function of the brain in ways that result in an increased capacity to play music. The most effective forms of practice do more than help a musician play an instrument. The practice actually increases the ability to play.

Anders Ericsson is one of the world’s foremost experts in training for peak performance. In describing the results of brain research related to practice of music and other skills, Ericsson says:

“Although this sort of research has been done in areas other than music, in every area that scientists have studied, the findings are the same: long-term training results in changes in those parts of the brain that are relevant to the particular skill being developed.”[3]

Ericsson goes on to say that this applies to practice for intellectual skills like mathematics; to physical skills such as swimming or gymnastics; and to skills that have both a mental and a physical component, like playing a musical instrument. Ericsson says:

“Although the specific details vary from skill to skill, the overall pattern is consistent: Regular training leads to changes in the parts of the brain that are challenged by the training. The brain adapts to these challenges by rewiring itself in ways that increase its ability to carry out the functions required by the challenges. This is the basic message that should be taken away from the effects of training on the brain…”[4]

Healthcare practitioners require both mental and physical skills. For example, among mental skills in the first few seconds of contact with a patient is the ability to notice “cues” in a patient’s airway, breathing, circulation, disability and environment. Those cues help you identify types of medical distress that may need immediate intervention. You then use both mental and physical skills to provide the optimum medical response.

If you could see a scan of your brain, the parts of your brain that control the mental and physical skills you use as a healthcare practitioner would be larger and have more grey matter than similar parts of the brains of people who don’t have those skills.

Literally, your healthcare practice is expanding your brain! In turn, that expands your ability to become an even more skilled practitioner.


We’ve talked about changes that happen in the brain of someone who learns to play a musical instrument or acquire some other skill. There is another ability that musicians share with healthcare practitioners. Musicians learn to play their instruments in a way that is in harmony and rhythm and pace with other musicians. The resulting sound is greater and more complex than anything that could be created by a single musician.

Many healthcare practitioners have a similar ability. In emergency situations, in operating rooms and in other settings, healthcare practitioners work in teams. As in a rock group or an orchestra, each medical team member has unique role to play. Each person’s actions must be correct for their instrument or their practice, and must coordinate perfectly with the actions of every other person who is performing.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the world’s foremost experts who has researched the state of “flow.” He describes it as a state where “Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”[5]

Healthcare practitioner team members are so tuned into the patient and one another that the entire process just flows.

Those might be some of the most satisfying experiences of a healthcare practitioner – being part of a perfectly orchestrated medical team, knowing that what you are doing is improving or even saving a patient’s life.

And it begins with practice, continuously improving the brain-expanding mental and physical skills of your profession.


Hone Virtual Education aims to help you improve and save lives by enhancing your diagnostic skills in the first few minutes of patient contact.

One of the ways Hone helps you do that is through virtual simulation training modules you can download to your augmented-reality-enabled smartphone or tablet.

To find out more, visit where you can…

Learn more about Hone Cue Recognition virtual simulation training;

Be notified of updates and launch dates;

Apply to be a beta tester as new modules are developed for healthcare practitioners in high pressure environments.

Practice is brain-expanding!


Bonnie Hutchinson is a writer and lifelong learner with degrees in Education and Whole Systems Design as well as extensive training and experience in adult learning and teaching. As an organizational and evaluation consultant, she’s worked with many healthcare and healthcare practitioner organizations. She’s bestselling author of Transitions: Pathways to the Life and World Your Soul Desires.


[1]  Thomas Elbert, Christo Pantev, Christian Wienbruch, Brigitte Rockstroh and Edward Taub (1995), “Increased cortical representation of the fingers of the left hand in string players” in Science 270, 305-307.

[2]  Siobhan Hutchinson, Leslie Hui-Lin Lee, Nadine Gaab, Gottfried Schlaug (2003), “Cerebellar Volume of Musicians,“ Cerebral Cortex 13, 943-949 and
Christian Gaser and Gottfried Schlaug (2003), “Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians,” Journal of Neuroscience 23, 9140-9245.

[3]  Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (2016), Peak: How to Master Almost Anything, Penguin Canada, Toronto ON, p. 43.

[4]  Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (2016), op. cit., p. 45.

[5]  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” quoted in Journal of Leisure Research, 24(1), pp. 93–94, by Kendra Cherry |Reviewed by Steven Gans, MD (2018), “Flow Can Help You Achieve Goals: Understanding the Psychology of Flow,”

Hone CUE Recognition on the App Store

The Hone CUE Recognition App will soon be available on the App Store for early adopters. When it is available - you will be able to download it via the link below.