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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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