Musical Education and Better Brain Function

Aug 22, 2014

A lot of time has been spent, both in this blog and in the world at large, discussing the life lessons children can learn with an education in music. And that’s all well and good, but there is a whole other side to the benefits of a musical education for children; development and optimization of brain function. While many of the life skills that have been talked about in connection to music lessons are overt and obvious, like self-esteem and goal setting, brain development and optimization of functions have significantly more subtle benefits, like increased grey matter and improvements in memory and attention.

Some interesting findings were presented at the Neuroscience 2013 conference in San Diego. Specifically, neuroscientists have discovered that musical training can improve function and connectivity among a variety of different brain regions. Musical training, regardless of whether is it with an instrument or vocal, increases the total volume of grey matter in the brain, while also strengthens communication between brain areas. Early introduction to musical education, especially before the age of 7, changes how the brain interprets and integrates all kinds of sensory information.

There are three basic benefits to the brain that come with an education in music that neuroscientists have been able to identify. The first is that musicians have a heightened ability to combine and integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight. The second benefit is that the age at which a musical education begins can have lasting affects on the anatomy of the adult brain. Beginning lessons before the age of seven appears to have the greatest impact on adult brain anatomy. The final discovery has much to do with memory and brain structure. As it turns out, the circuits in the brain involved with musical improvisation are built using systemic training. This leads to the brain being less reliant on working memory (better known as short-term memory) and creates more extensive connectivity throughout the brain. In a press briefing from November 11, 2013 Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD (an expert on music, neuroimaging, and brain plasticity from Harvard Medical School) noted “Music might provide an alternative access into a broken or dysfunctional system within the brain.” He went on to say “Music has the unique ability to go through alternative channels and connect different sections of the brain.”

These findings are based on a number of studies done by neuroscientists across the world, but there were three in particular that yielded these major findings, while suggesting some interesting real world results of the changes music has on the developing brain. The first study, administered by researchers at the University of Montreal, looked at how musicians and non-musicians process two pieces of sensory input at the same time. The details of the study aren’t so important, but the idea was to trick the participant into thinking they had received two touch sensations, when in fact they had received a touch and two sound sensations. The researchers thought that the musicians would be better at differentiating sound from touch because of their experience with simultaneously working their instrument, reading sheet music, and listening to the tones they produce. Turns out, they were right. Non-musicians fell for the illusion, but musicians did not. This heavily implies a greatly improved ability to process information from more than once sense at a time. What does this mean in the real world? Well, that’s a little more difficult to pinpoint, but if you consider the implications a number of possibilities arise. For example, driving a car requires the use of several senses at once; obviously vision plays an important role, but a driver must also pay attention to the way the car feels, both through the steering wheel, and through the pedals, as well as the sounds of the road around them. Very often you can hear a problem on the road well before you can see it. This implies musicians have the ability to be more proficient and safer drivers than those without musical training. From this relatively easy example it is simple to see how this sort of sensory development could be transferred to other tasks.

Another study looked at brain scans of nearly 50 young adults, all between the ages of 19 and 21, all with at least one year of musical training in their childhood. Through painstaking analysis researchers discovered that the areas of the brain associated with hearing, and more interestingly, self-awareness, appeared to be larger in people who had an introduction to a musical education before the age of 7. This finding is particularly fascinating due to the fact that brain development tends to peak right around age 7, implying that a musical education can have a massive impact on brain maturation. The most common finding throughout the brain scans was that the areas affected tended to show the growth of more grey matter, creating a thicker cortex, which is the outer layer of the cerebrum and is mostly responsible for all of our voluntary body actions. This increased grey matter helps better facilitate some of our more complex behaviours, like social interactions, though, judgement, learning, short term memory, and speech and language. In short, music lessons at a young age can have a significant and lasting affect on all of these important social and personal behaviours.

The third study looked at the relationship between musical training and brain circuitry. In this Swedish study researchers looked at MRI scans of almost 40 pianists as they played a special 12-key piano keyboard. It was discovered that systemic training actually helped to improve the areas of the brain associated with musical improvisation, which in turn improved brain connectivity resulting in less dependence on short term memory. Through looking at MRI scans of individuals with a lot of experience with jazz improvisation, and those who simply played the piano, researchers discovered that those with improvisational experience showed much higher connectivity between three major areas of their frontal lobe while they played. Similarly, they showed much less activity in the areas of the brain that deals with “executive” functions, like planning and organizing. This suggests that individuals trained in improvisation are able to generate music with very little conscious attention, effort, or thought. This could mean that a musical background helps develop the regions of the brain that allow for free flowing thought and inspiration. For a real world example of what this actually means, consider Albert Einstein: “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”

These are just a few things that have been shown to be beneficial affects of musical education, but they are by no means the only changes to brain development. Along with stronger connections between brain functions, more grey matter, and improved brain structure and function, there has also been findings suggesting better memory and attention, as well as generally higher IQ scores. There are short term improvements as well; young students have shown dramatic improvements in verbal intelligence after only four short weeks of musical training, and elementary students in higher quality music programs have shown 20% improvements on standardized tests in English and math. The benefits are seemingly endless, and while the most significant improvements are implemented at a young age, it is never too late to reap the brain function improvements associated with an education in the musical arts.