©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

Differences have been identified between musicians and nonmusicians, between amateurs and virtuosi. Sometimes superior musical neurology shows itself as an excruciating sensitivity to sound (e.g., Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Handel).

Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), neuroscientists studied violinists and found that they could hear the music simply by thinking about it, a skill amateurs in the study were unable to match.

The brains of eight violinists with German orchestras and eight amateurs were analyzed as they silently tapped out the first sixteen bars of Mozart’s violin concerto in G major. The professionals showed significant activity in the part of their brains that controlled hearing. In a second experiment, the violinists were asked to imagine playing the concerto without moving their fingers. Brain scans showed that the professionals were hearing the music in their heads.

In his book entitled Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, author Jourdain provides an interesting profile of musicians as compared to nonmusicians. Characteristics of the classical musician include a strong superego that pushes them toward and through required practice. Other characteristics include:

  • High tenacity, independence, and self-confidence
  • A tendency to be somewhat androgynous and eschew society’s gender role expectations (e.g., males are more sensitive, females are more forceful)
  • Independence from a specific IQ range (e.g., IQs ranged from 93-166 at one school)

There are also marked differences between amateur musicians and virtuosi in terms of approach to musical activities, including practice and memorization. Refer to summary table that follows.


• Tend to concentrate on fragments, seldom playing the entire piece. They correct wrong notes by playing them in the context of a larger phrase.

• Lean toward utilizing auditory imagery to help them nurture deeper relations (as opposed to note-perfect playing).

• Understand the strong correlation between quality of performance and amount of practice, and tend to practice more and in the “right way.”

• Tend to perceive large patterns, complex themes, musical contours, and subtle nuances.

• May memorize complicated works quickly by abstracting a small number of intertwined patterns, reducing passages from many notes to only a few musical devices.



• Tend to play long passages straight through. They stop to repeat faulty notes several times when they encounter them in the passage.

• Lean toward a “typist mentality” and direct attention to correctness of individual notes.

• Tend to practice less (although additional practice may have little effect on overall virtuosity based on other factors) and overemphasize certain aspects of playing and neglect others.

• Tend to listen more “simply,” and miss some of the depth.

• May have difficulty memorizing complicated works quickly because of a lack of the structural understanding of the music.