Does Musical Diversity Matter?


You’ve probably heard that listening to or playing music has certain cognitive effects. Music can help you relax, or help you focus while you study. Listening to it can even help to increase your IQ score! Playing music helps develop fine motor skills, coordination, focus, and attention span. Practicing anything consistently also develops certain character traits, like perseverance, tenacity, and diligence.


However, something you may not have heard before is the idea that listening to and playing different types or styles of music can have different effects on your body, mind and even spirit. We aren’t just talking about fast and slow music here– music of different styles, whether from different eras or different cultures, actually alters your brain waves in different ways, affecting how your mind works, and your mood (even your hormone productions). If you’re practicing the music yourself, then these different styles of music are also going to test your physical capabilities in a variety of manners, pushing you to new challenges and achievements.


A new study from Northwestern University focuses on what they call ‘bimusicality.’ The author, Patrick Wong, specializes in how the brain processes sound. Bimusicality is the same idea as if someone were bilingual. It just means that they grew up listening to two very different styles of music. Interestingly, Wong found that bimusicality had significant cognitive effects, far greater than most would have expected.

Wong recruited people who grew up listening primarily to Western popular music. And then he selected another group of people — Indian Americans– who grew up listening to both Western music and the traditional music of India.

Wong had his subjects use a dial to indicate the amount of tension they felt in the music.

People tend to report that foreign music has more tension. But the people who grew up with both Western and Indian music felt low degrees of tension with both types of music. They were equally at home listening to either genre.

Wong called these people ‘bimusicals.’

The study participants listened to the music inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, so Wong could track their brain activity.

“If you are bimusical, you tend to engage a larger network of the brain when you listen to the two kinds of music,” Wong said.

He concluded that people who had grown up with both Indian and Western music had a more elaborate brain system for listening than those who grew up with just Western music. Wong’s bimusicals engaged more areas of their brain when listening to music. He says bimusicals looped in not only the auditory areas of the brain, but also its emotional region.

That led Wong to hypothesize that bimusicals may need to engage the emotional part of the brain to differentiate the two types of music.

Wong isn’t saying that only bimusical people experience music emotionally. We all do that. It’s more that bimusicals may tap into that region of the brain in order to toggle between multiple musical styles.

So does the bimusical brain behave similarly to the bilingual brain?

Gigi Luk, who studies bilingual learning at Harvard, has observed signs of enhancements in the brains of people who grow up with two verbal languages.

“We found a better performance [among bilinguals] in what we call executive functions,” Luk said.

Executive function tasks involve things like planning, problem solving, and multitasking. “We see this advantage across the lifespan from young children to older adults,” she says.

Bilingualism has clear differences from Wong’s bimusicalism. For one thing, speaking a language is more active and involved than listening to music.

Still, Luk isn’t surprised by Wong’s findings. She believes that all that switching, whether between languages or musical cultures, leaves a physiological impact.

“Our experiences, whether they’re musical or linguistic, actually shape our brain and give us a qualitative difference in brain networks,” she said.

There’s still much more to learn about just how that qualitative difference plays out in the bimusical brain. But Wong believes his research opens a door.

“This is telling us that perhaps being bicultural might change our biology in a fundamental way,” Wong said.

But does that give the bimusical, bicultural mind the same sort of cognitive edge as the bilingual mind? That’s for a future study.