©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Much of what we now know about the brain and gender differences is the result of a collective body of data that derive from a variety of research modalities. These include surveys, questionnaires, direct observations, physical measurements, autopsies, double-blind studies, and electronic testing devices that permit researchers to study brain function while the individual is alive.
In general, the left cerebral hemisphere is more developed at birth in females. This gives girls an advantage in preschool, kindergarten, and elementary grades for subjects that primarily utilize the left side of the brain.
The right cerebral hemisphere is more developed at birth in males. This means that boys typically find subjects that require use of the left hemisphere more of a challenge in a typical elementary-school curriculum, but they tend to excel later on when subjects are added that utilize the right side of the brain (unless they’ve already dropped out of school).
The two cerebral hemispheres are connected by several neuronal-axon bridges. The largest and most well-studied is the Corpus Callosum (e.g., 80-250 million axons). Another is the Anterior Commissure. These connecting bridges allow the right and left hemispheres to share information with each other and support each other’s functions as needed. The two cerebral hemispheres keep up a continuous conversation, if you will, via these bridges.
Based on gender, studies have shown differences in the size of the Anterior Commissure (e.g., consistently larger in the female brain) and the Corpus Callosum (e.g., typically larger in the female brain but controversy exists about the magnitude of those differences).
More connectors between the hemispheres in the female brain contribute to a generalized and empathizing style of functioning whereby both cerebral hemispheres continually work in together. Fewer connectors in the male brain give rise to a more lateralized and systemizing style of thinking.
Female brains are somewhat smaller and lighter. They are more generalized in processing style and require more energy to run (e.g., second for second they utilize more oxygen, glucose, and micronutrients). Female brains tend to be more collegial and relational.
In addition, the female brain has more tissue in the massa intermedia that connects the two halves of the thalamus (a sort of relay station that directs information for further processing). This may also contribute to the more generalized brain-function style in the female brain.
Male brains tend to be somewhat larger and heavier. They are more lateralized in processing style. That is, part of the brain can be more energy-efficient for selected tasks (e.g., one part is working while others are idling). Because their brains tend to be more lateralized they are more energy efficient second for second. In addition, they tend to be more goal-oriented and hierarchical. Each cerebral hemisphere operates more independently. The disadvantage is that the male brain is at higher risk for conditions that are exacerbated by reduced hemispheric coordination such as dyslexia and hyperactivity.
Males and females may approach the study of music and/or performance differently based on gender uniqueness in terms of brain function. For example, in general the male brain is more lateralized, goal-oriented, instrumental, and compartmentalized. Males may be more single-minded about pursuing the study of music, setting goals for musical accomplishments, and preparing for one specific performance. With a more lateralized and goal-oriented brain, males may find it easier to focus for longer periods of time (e.g., a 90-minute lesson, a 2-hour practice session, several hours consecutively devoted to composing or arranging, preparing one specific performance).
Typically the female brain is more generalized, expressive, collegial, and at least equally concerned about the quality of the experience on the way to the goal as compared to pursuing the actual goal. With a more generalized and collegial brain, females may find it more of a challenge to focus in the way that is expected of and that works for the male brain. Females tend to be more concerned about the quality of the journey on the way to the goal. They may want more variety and may find it more of a challenge to prepare for one specific performance.
• Female musicians may have more hesitancy about leaving family and friends behind to “go on the road” and may try to take everyone along. They may also take more breaks from their career path to devote time to family.
• Females tend to concentrate better and practice or perform more easily in an environment with fewer distractions. This could mean, for example, that can find it more of a challenge to focus in on the goal and concentrate during practice or performance situations when the environment contains distractions (e.g., extraneous sounds).
• Male musicians may have less hesitancy about leaving family and friends behind to “go on the road” and follow their dreams, leaving partner/children at home.
These differences can be challenging in cross-gender situations (e.g., male teacher with female student or female teacher with male student). The way in which the teacher structures the lesson time and interacts with the student’s brain (based on male or female brain) can have a huge impact on the student’s musical success. A male student may be able to goal-orientedly plow solidly on during a two-hour lesson with minimal breaks. A female student may need more breaks in which to chat about the impact of the music on her life and/or connect personally with the teacher.
A difference in terms of appreciation of humor can impact situations involving cross-gender or mixed-group activities, such as practice sessions or performance situations. For example:
• Females tend to find jokes less funny overall and may chuckle rather than laugh outright. They tend to be less amused by what they perceive as poor jokes but tend to rate jokes defined as very funny even higher than their male counterparts do.
• Females tend to accept teasing more playfully.
• Extroverted females are more likely to appreciate orectic humor (e.g., slapstick, laughing as the expense of other people’s misfortune such as someone slipping on a banana peel, racial/cultural/smutty jokes).
• Males to find jokes funnier, generally give most jokes a higher rating, and are more likely to laugh harder at them. Males tend to try harder to be funny and actually may be five times funnier (as compared to females).
• Males are more likely to respond to teasing with aggression.
• Males are more likely to appreciate orectic humor (e.g., slapstick, laughing as the expense of other people’s misfortune such as someone slipping on a banana peel, racial/cultural/smutty jokes).