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!


  1. Lisa on February 9, 2008 at 10:50

    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. Daniel E. Friedman on February 10, 2008 at 7:14

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

    Inter­est­ing post.

  3. Helene Zemel on February 10, 2008 at 9:51

    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 on February 11, 2008 at 8:53

    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 on February 15, 2008 at 5:27

    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 on April 13, 2009 at 12:37

    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 on May 19, 2009 at 10:09

    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

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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