Many studies have shown how playing an instrument or singing helps shape the brain in young children. That’s no surprise given how playing music involves multiple skills, including reading musical notation, following a conductor’s movements, listening to others singing or playing, coordinating your own singing-playing with them, and keeping track of the beat using the correct time signature. Doing all the previous can only be accomplished by activating multiple parts of the brain associated with learning, memorizing, and movement. Neuroscientists call this neural plasticity—the ability of the brain and nervous system to change responses  to internal or external stimuli by reorganizing structure, functions, and connections.

The benefits of practicing and performing music also have an effect on other kinds of thinking and activities. As they play music, students are developing skills with abstract reasoning, memory, focused attention, creative problem solving, and persistence. And these skills map over to other academics including math, reading and language arts, study habits, and even SAT scores.

Personally, I can’t begin to measure the value of music training in my own career, even in regards to being a wine professional. But I played the trumpet from fourth grade through graduate school and into my mid-30s. In particular, I think about the time I performed Mahler Symphony No. 8 with the then New Mexico Symphony. The piece is appropriately called the “symphony of a thousand” because it requires so many on stage. For that particular performance of the Mahler, I was playing third part in the trumpet section on stage in a large orchestra of nearly a hundred. Behind me was a chorus of over 150. In front, in addition to the conductor, were eight vocal soloists. A group of off stage brass players was in the balcony, waiting for an eternity and the end of the piece to play.

Keeping with the theme of neural plasticity and playing Mahler 8: from moment to moment I had to focus on everything going on around me, including playing my own part, watching the conductor, listening to the other people in my section, and all the various instruments and singers around me. Every instant I had to adjust the volume and timbre of my sound while playing in tune and in time with the other trumpet players and the rest of the orchestra. I can’t tell you how I did this—or how anyone does it, for that matter. But I can tell you that performing music at a high level requires one to keep an enormous number of things in their field of awareness, some of it operating at the unconscious level.

Otherwise, although my freelance career was short-lived, I never would have passed the Master Sommelier examinations without all the years spent in a practice room, taking auditions, and performing. So there are a surprising number of overlaps between music and the wine experience. To learn more about this, see my previous post on this topic ( In short, developing connections between the auditory and servo-motor parts of the brain is similar to linking the smell, taste, kinesthetic, and language centers used in wine tasting. Much like music, smelling and tasting wine uses multiple parts of the brain either simultaneously or in rapid sequence. And that brings us to what I call sommelier brain. 

The recent article titled “Sniffing Out Meaning: Chemosensory and Semantic Neural Network Changes in Sommeliers” in the journal Human Brain Mapping highlights how the brains of sommeliers “remodel” themselves by “synchronizing seemingly independent circuits to optimize the ability to distinguish between subtle differences in the qualitative character of wine and translating them into words.”

The study is called “Sniffing out meaning: Chemosensory and semantic neural network changes in sommeliers.” The goal of the project was to analyze differences between the responses of sommeliers and non-industry people when smelling and tasting wine. No surprise there’s a huge gap in knowledge and experience separating the two groups. Results from the study show that sommeliers use different brain regions when smelling and tasting wine. While non-professionals predominantly use only the pre-frontal cortex for processing wine, sommeliers tend to utilize the parts of the brain for smell, taste, and language, forging connections between them.

The study sample comprised 28 subjects, including consumers and professional sommeliers. As part of the study, all were served four Spanish wines: a Chenin Blanc from the Penedès, a Tempranillo-based Ribera del Duero, a Cariñena, and a Garnacha-based Priorat. Participants were asked to taste and evaluate the wines for quality while hooked up to a magnetic resonance imaging machine.

This novel study is one of the few experiments to date that has examined the structure and functioning of sommeliers’ brains during wine tasting. The results of the study show how the participating showed how sommeliers used multiple parts of the brain to process and communicate about wine. “We found functional differences between sommeliers and generic consumers involving the sensory flavor circuit, but also regions involved in semantic operations,” the study reads. “The former reflects a capacity for differential sensory processing, while the latter reflects sommeliers’ ability to pay attention to relevant sensory inputs and translate them into complex verbal descriptions.” The findings from this study indicate that “experience and expertise in wine tasting likely modulate both tasting and language circuits to produce superior flavor recognition abilities, as demonstrated by sommeliers during blind tastings.”

I think about my own experience smelling and tasting wine. Unlike when playing music, which I have yet to deconstruct, I intimately know how I internally process wine. For me, aromas and flavors in a glass of wine are quickly translated into internal images of the various aromas I perceive and recognize. These images also have structural qualities called submodalities. Once identified, the images of aromas/flavors move and arrange themselves by category in my internal field. Note that they don’t go away, but literally move out of the way so I can recognize images of the next aroma or flavor I’m getting in the wine. There’s more to the process, but I think you get the idea that my internal experience of wine is complex and highly visual, and involves more than just smelling and tasting.

In the end, the term neural plasticity applies to both music and wine. It may also help explain how one can master a complex art/skill at the unconscious level. Not surprisingly, music and wine often cross-pollinate. I know a lot of wine professionals who are also musicians. If anything, sommelier training seems to change one’s brain for the better. I know that’s true for me.