Neuromaestro: Music Composition in the Brain

On Thursday, we visited the Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris. This was my first time visiting one, and I was surprised to see how different it was to see a cemetery in person in comparison to how they look in movies. Each of the tombs and mausoleums was extremely intricate and unique.

When we reached the cemetery, we received maps that had names of famous people who were buried there. I saw a few names I recognized, but Frédéric Chopin stood out to me instantly. When I was younger, I learned a lot about Chopin’s work as a pianist and composer through music class in school as well as outside piano lessons. At first, I resented going to piano lessons, but slowly started liking them over time. I realized that if I spent enough time trying to learn a piece that fit with my level of skill, I could do it. But whenever I was asked by piano teachers to try to write a few stanzas of my own music, I always struggled.

Figure 1. Me next to Chopin’s grave.

This lead me to look into whether there were differences in brain activity of composers during the creative process. I found the study “The Brain Functional State of Music Creation: an fMRI Study of Composers” that explored functional connectivity in brains of musical composers. These researchers found that connectivity decreased in subjects that were composing between visual and motor areas when compared to the resting state. Authors hypothesized that this could be because neurons that of the visual and motor areas were recruited to connect with the auditory cortex and establish connectivity with other areas that were more activated while subjects were composing. However, they did find increased functional connectivity between the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the default mode network (DMN) during the process of composition. This increased connectivity could be due to the fact that composing involves thinking about individual notes but also the combination of those notes as a whole (Lu et al., 2015).

Figure 2 ( Brain areas activated in the default mode network.

I was surprised to see higher functional connectivity in the DMN, because we learned in previous neuroscience classes that it is active when people are not focused on an activity and the brain is involved in wakeful rest. I found other studies that also demonstrate that the default mode network does not always disengage during certain tasks, and the previously known role of the DMN is being rethought (Vatansever et al., 2015).


  1. Lu, J., Yang, H., Zhang, X., He, H., Luo, C., & Yao, D. (2015). The Brain Functional State of Music Creation: An fMRI Study of Composers. Scientific Reports.,5, 12277.
  2. Vatansever, D., Menon, D., Manktelow, A., Sahakian, B., & Stamatakis, E. (2015). Default mode network connectivity during task execution. ,122, 96-104.

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