The Sunday Magazine

What makes a musical prodigy? Brain researchers look to demystify genius

Montreal’s BRAMS lab explores biological basis for what most believe is ‘gift of God, magic’
Montreal’s BRAMS lab explores biological basis for what most believe is "gift of God, magic". Their researchers are interested in comparing various brain activities in 20 musical prodigies and an equal number of musicians in a control group. (Radio Canada)

Sarah Oulousian sits in front of a microphone in a soundproof studio in a basement psychology laboratory at the Université de Montréal.

She adjusts her headphones and nods: she's ready to be tested. 

Across from her, Michael Weiss hits a button. Oulousian hears 14 musical notes played in a row: Da da da daaa da da da daa da da da da daa daa. 

She repeats the pattern out loud, then does it again, with a dozen more patterns.

Oulousian nails the first three. But as the patterns get more and more unpredictable — random combinations of longer and shorter notes — she begins to struggle. She closes her eyes in concentration. When she gets a pattern wrong, she taps the table in frustration.

Members of the BRAMS research team looking at musical prodigies. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Weiss, her tester, is a postdoctoral fellow at BRAMS, an internationally recognized inter-university research laboratory in Montreal. BRAMS stands for Brain, Music and Sound. He and other members of the research team are using cutting-edge technology to compare the brains of musical prodigies to other musicians — musicians who are talented, but not prodigies.

The goal is to pinpoint cognitive differences that could explain why musical prodigies play so well, with such apparent ease.

"We are just trying to understand how their brains make them  learn so fast and make them exceptional," says Prof. Isabelle Peretz, a renowned cognitive neuropsychologist, and the study's leader. "We know nothing."

A gift, magic — or biological quirk?

Oulousian is 15. She's become used to winning competition after competition. At eight, she gave a piano recital at Carnegie Hall. Her 19-year-old sister Emily, a first-year medical student, has also played Carnegie Hall and won her share of competitions.  Both sisters have been featured on the CBC list of the 30 hottest Canadian classical musicians under 30.

Sarah and Emily Oulousian (David Gutnick/CBC)

Two years ago, BRAMS put out a call: researchers were looking for musicians who had won national or international classical music competitions or had national recognition before they were 12. So far 20 prodigies and an equal number of other musicians — the control group — have been tested.

Peretz understands why people are fascinated by the stories of Mozart composing a Minuet and Trio in G major when he was six, or violinist Yehudi Menuhin playing Beriot's Scene de Ballet with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra when we was eight. 

"People believe that [their musical skill] is the gift of God, or magic, or whatever," Peretz says, dismissively.

She maps brains, looking for the biological foundations of music-making. She does not entertain speculation.

When it comes to understanding musical prodigies, Peretz says there is too much emphasis on nurture, not nearly enough on nature. 

Dr. Isabelle Peretz is renowned for her work on music and the brain. (David Gutnick/CBC)

She believes cognitive science "is the only way" to understand what is really allowing young musicians to play at a level that appears almost impossible.

Dr. Megha Sharda, another member of the BRAMS team, specializes in what are called "altered neuro-developmental trajectories," brain development in people who are outside the norm. 

Sharda points to a row of computer monitors filled with bright blue MRI brain scans of prodigies and control group musicians.

"Technologically, we are not there yet, where we can look at a single brain and tell if it belongs to a prodigy," she says. "Our approach is instead to look at groups of people and patterns of brain connectivity within groups of people." 

Sharda says this may allow BRAMS researchers to determine what, if any, differences there are in brain connectivity between the prodigies and musicians in the control group. 

'We're not these crazy geniuses'

Sarah Oulousian can't explain her ability, she just knows it's innate.

"We're not like these crazy geniuses, we don't live and breathe music," says Oulousian.  "It is just a talent that we have." 

Her mother spotted that talent when Sarah was three. She was up in her bedroom while her sister was downstairs practising Richard Cliederman's Souvenir d'Enfance. 

"She made a mistake. So I screamed in Chinese, 'Cuòwù!' — which means mistake. My mom was shocked…. They did the same mistake again, and I said it was wrong, again. So then they said, 'Oh, she has to start piano.'" 

"Learning repertoire can be hard for other kids, but for us it comes naturally," Sarah said. If the sisters first see a composition on a Monday, "by the end of the week, we know the piece by heart."

The BRAMS prodigy study is in its early stages. More prodigies and control group members will be scanned in MRI machines. More prodigies and control group members will have their memories challenged in the sound booth and sit for a battery of other cognitive and intelligence tests.

Preliminary results are being carefully guarded until there's enough material for academic peer review and publication. 

Killing the mystery?

Peretz knows that the BRAMS findings are bound to raise eyebrows. From the time she started studying the way the  brain processes music, critics have told her the same thing.

"'You are killing the mystery of music because you are studying the science of music.' That is what everybody believes. And it is going to be the same thing for prodigies."

Emily and Sarah Oulousian with their mother, Sharon Fei Oulousian. (David Gutnick/CBC)

After a day of testing in the lab, Emily and Sarah take a quick look at a monitor showing scans of their own brains before they head for home on Montreal's South Shore. They joke that they look rather ordinary. 

They're both looking forward to reading the results of the BRAMS study.

"We are not going to be interpreting our music differently now because we know what is going on in our brain," says Emily, "or why some musicians perform better than others. The basis of science is that you find explanations."

Emily and Sarah have spent thousands of hours at the keyboard perfecting their technical skills, and worked equally hard on developing their personal styles. As they mature, their playing has changed. They also are aware how their brains just seem to naturally understand how music works.

Sarah has her own ideas about how both nature and nurture combine to make the sisters into who they are. 

"Our success is like the three legs of a grand piano," says Sarah. "The first leg is our teachers who always push us, the second is our parents who give us unconditional love and unconditional support, and the third is ourselves."

Click 'listen' above to hear David Gutnick's documentary "Three Legs Make Us Successful."


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