Music on the brain

The relationship between music and language (and to a degree, overall academic performance) has been explored extensively in the research. We’ve previously posted on the topic (and have also posted on why it’s so hard to shake a song that’s stuck in your head, which isn’t really as academically important, but is interesting…).

Most parents are familiar with the so-called Mozart Effect, wherein exposure to music (or more specifically, classical music) (or even more specifically music written by Mozart) (or if  you really want to get down to brass tacks, the first movement “allegro con spirito” of the Mozart Sonata KV 448 for Two Pianos in D Major) can improve academic performance. The idea was born out of a 1993 study published in Nature that reported that individuals who listened to the Mozart Sonata scored significantly higher on standard ized tests of abstract/spatial reasoning ability than those who were instructed to relax or those who just sat there in silence.

Listening to music we like does make us feel good, which, in turn, increases focus and attention, which improves performance on many tests of mental sharpness. According to an article in the Racine Journal Times, some studies have shown “improvement in the kind of mental skills we use in doing complex math problems, interpreting driving directions and pondering how to fit a large bookcase in the trunk of a small car.”

But the idea that simply listening to music will have a profound and lasting effect on academic performance has generally been dismissed. (For a thorough analysis of the shortcomings of the initial research, check out this post at the Sharp Brains blog). Instead, researchers (including, says the Journal Times, those who conducted the original “Mozart Effect” study) have shifted to focus on the cognitive effect of learning to make music. Says the Journal Times: “If you want music to sharpen your senses, boost your ability to focus and perhaps even improve your memory, the latest word from science is you’ll need more than hype and a loaded iPod. You gotta get in there and play. Or sing, bang or pluck.”

Learning to make music engages and demands coordination among many brain regions, including those that process sights, sounds, emotions and memories, says Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist.

Years ago, Schlaug found a glaring and suggestive difference between the brains of 30 professional musicians and 30 non-musician adults of matched age and gender.

In the musicians, the bundle of connective fibers that carry messages between the brain’s right and left hemispheres – a structure called the corpus callosum – was larger and denser on average than that of their non-musical peers. The brawnier bridge was particularly notable toward the rear of the brain, at the crossing that links areas responsible for sensory perception and voluntary movement.

It suggested not only that musicians might be able to more nimbly react to incoming information but also that their brains might be more resilient and adaptable, allowing right and left hemispheres, which specialize in separate functions, to work better together.

Schlaug and colleagues also found that the musicians who had begun their musical training before the age of 7 showed the most pronounced differences – suggesting an early start might rewire the brain most dramatically.

Over at the New Science of Learning Blog, Dr. William Jenkins (one of the neuroscientists behind the Fast ForWord programs), highlights a recent article, Music Training for the Development of Auditory Skills by Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran, that examines three specific areas of brain function where music training positively affects function:
  • Transfer of cognitive skills: Music has been shown to affect how the brain processes pitch, timing and timbre. Along with describing music, these are also key elements of speech and language—that are positively affected by musical training.
  • Fine tuning of auditory skills: “Musicians, compared with non-musicians, more effectively represent the most meaningful, information-bearing elements in sounds — for example, the segment of a baby’s cry that signals emotional meaning, the upper note of a musical chord or the portion of the Mandarin Chinese pitch contour that corresponds to a note along the diatonic musical scale.” While music does not appear to affect visual memory or attention, research shows that it does affect auditory verbal memory and auditory attention.
  • Better recognition of “regularities”: The human brain is wired to filter regular predictable patterns out from the noise surrounding us (e.g., we can pick out a friend’s voice in a room filled with many other sounds and voices.) Musical training enhances this cognitive ability.

Based on this information, Kraus and Chandresekaran argue “that active engagement with music promotes an adaptive auditory system that is crucial for the development of listening skills. An adaptive auditory system that continuously regulates its activity based on contextual demands is crucial for processing information during everyday listening tasks.”

So while the idea of a Mozart Effect, by which we can improve academic performance simply by exposing children to music, seems feeble at best, there are significant cognitive benefits to musical training, particularly in the area of language and processing abilities.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: