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Musical training as mental exercise for cognitive performance

We often hear (gladly!) how teachers use our blog articles and brain teasers in their classes. We also hear how many psychology and biology teachers are getting their students excited about brain research, and, to contribute to their efforts, we like to recognize some great initiatives.

Last year, Jeffrey Gonce, a Psychology teacher at Red Land High School (West Shore School District, PA) asked his students to “complete a project describing a recent brain (or genetic) study that affects behavior.” The students could opt to post their articles online, and Jeffrey was kind enough to send us a link to read the results. We enjoyed reading them all, and published in our blog this beautiful essay, titled “Tis better to give than receive”, written by Alexandra, which Piano musical training was subsequently included in a number of neuroscience an psychology blogs.

This year, Jeffrey also sent us his students’ essays, and we are going to recognize and publish this great essay by high school student Megan. Enjoy!

It has long been the source of scientific debate as to whether music can improve the cognitive processes in children. Referred to by some as “The Mozart Effect,” a strong correlation is often found between music and increased brain activity. A new study by Canadian scientists has helped to strengthen that link. It shows that participation in music lessons at an early stage in life can help to improve a child’s memory and learning ability by encouraging different patterns of brain development (Music Training Boosts the Brain, 1).

In this new study, twelve children aged four to six were placed in either an experimental or a control group. The six children in the experimental group attended a Suzuki music school, which teaches children to listen to and imitate music before they attempt to read it (1). The six children in the control group took no music lessons. Over the span of a year, the children in the Suzuki classes were found to perform better on tests assessing memory and general intelligence skills such as literacy and math than the children in the control group. These six children also were found to have more changes in their brains’ responses to sounds than the control group in as little as four months (1).

The technique used to measure this changing brain activity is called magnetoencephalography, or MEG. MEG measures “magnetic fields generated by small intracellular electrical currents in neurons of the brain” (Magneto encephalography, 1).

Music recognition is distributed widely throughout the brain (Ratey, 265). The left hemisphere targets succession of sounds and rhythm, while the right hemisphere contains many other, more specific music areas (97, 265). People who learn to play an instrument, or even to sing, exercise strong connections between these two hemispheres. The creative patternings of the right hemisphere must be joined with action and language motor functions coordinated by the left hemisphere in order for a person to be able to communicate the music from their minds to others in an understandable medium (205).

This “mental exercise” increases cognitive capacity and trains the brain to be better organized. Unlike in some other activities, music exercises the entire brain, which causes other cognitive signals to fly faster and read more accurately (205). This means that people who study music are able to think more quickly and accurately. The motor functions used in music are linked with music because they both are coordinated in the frontal lobe, a portion of the brain mostly devoted to personality and complex thought (205). This means that by increasing one’s musical capacity, one is also increasing his or her memory capacity.

Some obvious evidence of music’s effects on the brain can be demonstrated by the fact that students who have studied music actually score higher on college entrance exams those who haven’t. According to a recent study conducted by the College Board, which administers the Scholastic Assessment Test, or SAT, students who said they had taken music lessons before taking the SAT scored, on average, 51 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 39 points higher on the math portion than those who didn’t (Marshall, 1). While many scientists believe that much of the evidence found in studies such as these is largely coincidental, with each additional study, the evidence is becoming more convincing. Participation in music lessons at an early stage in life can help to improve a child’s memory and learning ability by encouraging different patterns of brain development. By exercising the brain, children begin to make a better future for themselves at an increasingly earlier age. In addition to further tests on children, psychologists are also now beginning to experiment on the effects of music training on adult minds.

Works Cited

– Hamalainen, M. “Magnetoencephalography (MEG).” Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging. Dec. 2004. 25 Sept. 2007

– Marshall, Kenn. “Music, art studies linked to improved test scores.” The Patriot-News 20 Jan. 1996: A1.

– “Music training boosts the brain.” BBC News. 20 Sept. 2006. BBC News International Version. 20 Sept. 2007

– Ratey, John J. A User’s Guide to the Brain. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.


To learn more about this topic, you can read this sheet by the Society for Neuroscience on Music Training And The Brain.

If you are an educator, please let us know how we can be of help.

Thank you, Megan, and all other students involved!

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7 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    I would be interested to know what the effect of personal interest is. That is, what if a child does not want to learn a musical instrument, but prefers sports instead, or some other pursuit. Are we doing things just to improve the function of the brain? And if so, does it really improve our brain if we actually don’t find things like playing a musical instrument interesting or fun? I personally play a few different musical instruments and enjoy it. Just curious how a person’s interest and desire plays into this type of research.

  2. The ‘Suzuki’ test results are not really surprising. Imitation does have a positive effect on memory.

    Interesting post.

  3. Helene Zemel says:

    As a piano teacher, I appreciate this article. The fact that music study has a postivie effect on cognitive ability has prompted some of my 50+ students to get started as an Alzheimer’s preventative including one adult who is a Ph.D. psychologist. Although he is a music lover, he cited the studies as one of the reasons that he got started.

  4. Alvaro says:

    Lisa: personal interest/ motivation is critical. If a person (kid, adult) resists doing something, that can be counterproductive. The key is to ensure constant challenge and growth. The art, for parents and teachers, is to nurture that interest…but, in the end, it is the kid’s brain, not ours, who does the work and must be engaged.

    Daniel and Helene: thank you for your comments. Helene, feel free to share with us the experiences of that lifelong learner and Ph. D. in psych!

  5. Pat says:

    I may not be able to send my students to a music school but we also listen and learn to appreciate different genres of music in my class. I believe that music connects information to our brain in some way.

  6. Aaron says:

    I whole heartedly agree, I’ve been in music lessons since I was 6 or 7 and have played a few different instruments. But what I’ve learned by playing them have had a big effect on my choice to try and become a music teacher.

    A very good article, I liked it a lot.

  7. Jacob Polatis says:

    I do have to agree with this topic.I have been playing instruments since I was four and people say that I am smarter because of my playing of the clarinet,trumpet,and violin

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