Neuropsychology of music – Fredrik Ullén group

Our research is performed in tight collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, where Fredrik Ullén also is the Director of the Department of Cognitive Neuropsychology.

Decorative image representing a musical DNA spiral that is used in presentations of the research group's work on the genetics of music.

Research focus

Brain anatomy of adult monozygotic twins that differed in their musical experience.
Musically active monozygotic twins have thicker cortex in auditory-motor areas than their non-playing co-twins. Image: Fredrik Ullén

Scientific goal

Our scientific goal is to increase our understanding of the brain mechanisms that underpin human expertise, skill learning and creativity. In most of this work, we use music as a model. 

Indeed, music has proved very useful as a tool, or window, through which we can study questions of broad relevance for cognitive neuropsychology.

Engaging in music – whether as performers, listeners or creators - requires a stunningly complex interaction between numerous brain systems, which are involved in functions ranging from multisensory perception and motor coordination, to emotional processing and social interaction. Acquiring new musical skills, in turn, places extraordinary demands on neural plasticity, and the brain networks involved in learning and memory.

Brain anatomy of adult monozygotic twins that differed in their musical experience, i.e. one of the twins in the pair actively played the piano whereas the other had quit early in life. The playing twins showed a higher cortical thickness (CT) than their co-twins in several auditory and motor areas, including the inferior frontal cortex (IFG), premotor cortex (PMD, PMV), and the Sylvian parieto-temporal area (SPT).

Studying musicians and musical tasks can therefore provide important new knowledge not only about the musical brain as such, but also about fundamental principles for the neural control of behavior in general.

Finally, investigating musical engagement, its causes and consequences, is relevant from an applied perspective. Participating in musical activities, alone or together with others, may have effects on other things than our musical competence. In that context, we are particularly interested in the associations between cultural engagement, psychological well-being and health.

Schematic summary of main elements of the multifactorial gene.
Multifactoral Gene-Environment Interaction Model. Image: Fredrik Ullén

Schematic summary of main elements of the multifactorial gene– environment interaction model (MGIM) of expertise acquisition. At the phenotypic level (upper part), the MGIM assumes that psychological traits such as abilities, personality, interests, and motivation are associated with the domain and intensity of practice. Specific examples of variables that have been shown to be involved in various forms of expertise are provided in italics under each general heading. Practice will cause adaptations of neural mechanisms involved in expertise and can also influence relevant physical body properties. Furthermore, neural mechanisms related to trait differences may impact expertise independently of practice. Both genetic and nongenetic factors (lower part) influence the various variables that are involved in expertise at the phenotypic level. These influences are complex and involve different types of gene-environment interplay, i.e. gene-environment interaction as well as covariation.


Methodologically, we employ a combination of techniques from experimental and differential psychology, behavior genetics, and structural and functional neuroimaging. This reflects our belief in the importance of integrating analyses at different levels, from the behavioral to the neurobiological, as well as that fact that we are equally interested in general mechanisms and processes that apply to all humans, and the neuropsychological basis of individual differences. Individual differences are the consequence of a complex interaction between genes and environment, and we believe that important insights about variation in musical behaviors can be gained by analyzing gene-environment interplay using the tools of behavior genetics. 


Selected publications

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Staff and contact

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