Music training is good for the brain. Nina Kraus, a prominent brain researcher at Northwestern University, says that "music training leads to changes throughout the auditory system that prime musicians for listening challenges beyond music processing." The research in her laboratory and that from other labs suggests music training does for brain what exercise does for body fitness. She says "music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness."
Musicians are commonly studied models for neural plasticity, which refers to the ability of learning experiences to change the brain chemically and physically. Musicians have more brain grey matter volume in areas that are important for playing an instrument and in the auditory cortex, which processes all kinds of sound. Of course, the effects of music training are most robust for processing of music. But benefit transfers to speech, language, emotion, and general auditory processing.
In general, auditory learning requires formation of efficient sound-to-meaning relation-ships, which in turn require attending to sensory details (fine-grained properties of sound such as pitch, timing and timbre), but also thinking skills related to integrating sensory input and operating on it in working memory.
Music training confers ability to assess the relevance and predictability of information-bearing elements in an auditory signal. So, even in non-musical contexts, such as listen-ing to a speech, lecture, or sound track in a movie for example, musicians should learn and remember more of the content than non-musicians. Musicians also have an advan-tage when it comes to learning the sounds of a new language.
Music training imposes a high working-memory load. That can be a good thing, in that it helps you expand your working memory capacity, and thus reduces the impairing effects on memory of working memory overload. Increasing working memory capacity also improves the ability to think, as manifest in IQ scores. Since musicians usually have greater working memory capacity, it doesn't mean they are smarter than anybody else. But it probably does mean they are smarter than they would be if they were not musicians.
Music training also helps improve certain memory capabilities outside of music. For example, musicians show improvements in auditory verbal memory and auditory attention, but not in visual memory or visual attention. This brings up the matter of learning styles: auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learning. Most people are visual learners, but to the best possible learners they need to develop all three styles. Music training should help their auditory learning style, especially under conditions where the sounds to be learned are embedded in conflicting sound stimuli, such as noisy rooms or learning a new language.
All fine and good, but how does this apply to the masses who are not musicians? Would listening to a lot of music help the brain? I doubt it, for listening does not make rigorous task demands on the brain. Would music training for non-musicians help the brain? Maybe, especially if the training occurred at a young age when the brain is ma-turing.
One study of children showed that fifteen months of intense music training induced structural changes in the primary auditory and primary motor areas. These structural changes were associated with improved auditory and motor skills, respectively. Other studies show children who are musically trained, compared with non-trained children, have a better vocabulary in their native language and a greater reading ability. Pre-sumably, they would be better at learning other languages.
When and how much music training should be provided to children? Formal studies suggest that greatest benefit occurs if training begins before age 7. The benefits also cor-relate with the amount of music practice. However, much remains to be learned about effects of age and duration and nature of the music training.
Nina argues for more and better music education in the early grades of schools. She be-lieves music training may benefit academic achievement by improving learning skills and listening ability, especially in challenging listening environments, which are all too common in classrooms which are usually very noisy, despite research proving that classroom noise impairs learning. Noise not only creates problems of discerning salient sounds embedded in the over-all noise, but also creates a major distraction that impairs focused attention, information registration and memory consolidation.
I have summarized earlier research showing IQ in children improves when they are taught to have larger working memory capacity. Since working memory is apparently increased by music training, and music training also apparently enhances auditory learning, it seems like a no-brainer to suggest that more music training needs to occur in elementary school.
Kraus, N. and Chandrasekaran, B. 2010. Music training for the development of auditory skills. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience. 11: 500-505.