Over a typical career piano tuners spend tens of thousands of hours exploring a specialized acoustic environment. Tuning requires accurate perception and adjustment of beats in two-note chords that serve as a navigational device to move between points in previously learned acoustic scenes. It is a two-stage process that depends on the following: first, selective listening to beats within frequency windows, and, second, the subsequent use of those beats to navigate through a complex soundscape. The neuroanatomical substrates underlying brain specialization for such fundamental organization of sound scenes are unknown. Here, we demonstrate that professional piano tuners are significantly better than controls matched for age and musical ability on a psychophysical task simulating active listening to beats within frequency windows that is based on amplitude modulation rate discrimination. Tuners show a categorical increase in gray matter volume in the right frontal operculum and right superior temporal lobe. Tuners also show a striking enhancement of gray matter volume in the anterior hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus, and an increase in white matter volume in the posterior hippocampus as a function of years of tuning experience. The relationship with gray matter volume is sensitive to years of tuning experience and starting age but not actual age or level of musicality. Our findings support a role for a core set of regions in the hippocampus and superior temporal cortex in skilled exploration of complex sound scenes in which precise sound “templates” are encoded and consolidated into memory over time in an experience-dependent manner.
This article is freely available online through the J Neurosci Open Choice option.