The Athlete's Way

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Does Playing a Musical Instrument Make You Smarter?

Neuroscientists identify a link between musical training and executive function.

Albert Einstein's mother was a talented musician who made musical expression a part of daily home life when her children were growing up. Albert Einstein began playing the violin when he was 6 years old. By the age of 13, he was playing Mozart's sonatas. Einstein once said, "Life without playing music is inconceivable to me. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music... I get most joy in life out of music."

As the father of a 6-year-old, I am grateful that my daughter has developed a love of playing both the piano and violin. Did you play a musical instrument growing up? Do you continue to play an instrument today?

A new study from Boston Children’s Hospital found a correlation between musical training and improved executive function in both children and adults. Previous studies have identified a link between musical training and cognitive abilities, but few have looked specifically at the effects of early musical training on executive function.

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Executive functions (EF) are described as high-level cognitive processes that enable people to quickly process and retain information, regulate their behaviors, make good choices, solve problems, plan and adjust to changing mental demands. Another component of EF is having cognitive flexibility as represented by the ability to adjust to novel or changing tasks on demand.

The neuroscientists used functional MRI brain imaging in their controlled study to reveal a possible biological link between early musical training and improved executive functioning. The study, "Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians” was published online in the June 2014 journal PLOS ONE.

Nadine Gaab, PhD, from the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children's said in a press release, "Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications." Adding, "While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation, our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future."

In a previous Psychology Today blog post titled “Musical Training Optimizes Brain Function” I write about previous research that found musical training can cause fundamental changes in both the structure and function of a young person's brain.

Three Brain Benefits of Musical Training:

  1. Musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight.

  2. Beginning training before the age of seven has been shown to have the greatest impact. The age at which musical training begins affects brain anatomy as an adult.

  3. Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, leading to less reliance on working memory and more extensive connectivity within the brain.

Adult musicians and musically trained children in the new Boston study showed enhanced performance on several aspects of executive functioning. On fMRI, the children with musical training showed enhanced activation of specific areas of the prefrontal cortex during a test that made them switch between mental tasks.

More specifically these brain areas included: the supplementary motor area, the pre-supplementary area and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. All of these brain regions have been linked to executive function. Interestingly, enhanced brain activation was also apparent within other brain regions that are not traditionally directly linked to executive function including the insula and cerebellum.

A May 2014 study from the University of Liverpool found that musical training can increase the blood flow in the left hemisphere of the brain. This suggests that the areas responsible for music and language might share common brain pathways.

These findings also support research by Nina Kraus at Northwestern University that looked at how more primitive brain areas also linked to language processing are activated by musical training. I wrote about this research in a Psychology Today blog post titled, “Musical Training May Improve Brain’s Language Skills.”

Conclusion: Musical Training Might Improve Academic Achievement

The researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital conclude that children and adults with extensive musical training show enhanced executive function when compared to non-musicians, especially for cognitive flexibility, working memory, and processing speed.

The researchers note that children who play a musical instrument may already have executive functioning abilities that somehow attract them to music and predispose them to stick with their lessons. In order to establish a causal link between musical training and improved executive function, future studies by the team will follow children over time, and also randomly assign musical training to test subjects. 

The authors emphasize that it is important for educators, policy makers and parents to  take note that music training programs might boost standardized test scores. Cutting budgets for musical training in an effort to improve standardized math and language test scores could backfire. The creative arts, music, dance, and aerobic activity all have the ability to improve executive functions and fluid intelligence linked to academic performance.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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