Admittedly I keep watch for such things, but recently I've seen quite a few internet headlines about the benefits of music to the brain. For example, I’ve read online that practicing a musical instrument boosts motor and sensory brain development, that "uplifting music" enhances brain capacity, and that children who are "not musically inclined" can gain stronger brains with early music lessons. These kinds of media reports are usually welcomed sights for musicians, music teachers, and arts advocates. We personally experience the power of music, and know how it informs the way we think about the world around us. Hearing about musical brain research is affirming to us.
There are, however, some implicit problems with claims that musical brains are better than other brains. For one, there are multiple types of musicians whose skills can differ greatly. For instance, most formally trained musicians focus on technique development and performance from notation, whereas never-had-a-lesson vernacular musicians often improvise and playing by ear. Surely the brains of these two kinds of musicians develop very differently. More generally, findings of brain research are not easily communicated because the research itself is complex and detail oriented. Each study has limitations that must be considered when interpreting its results. Each one addresses only a small aspect of brain function, and contributes just a bit more to a body of literature that’s useful in answering bigger questions.
Such limitations can be lost when media writers (and bloggers!) share research in ways that a general readership will find interesting. Consider a recent study which scanned the brains of formally trained musicians—professionals and university-level music students—who began their training before the age of 7 (Steele, Bailey, Zatorre, & Penhune, 2013). Compared to later-trained musicians and non-musicians, the early-trained musicians had greater white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum. This important finding can be difficult to apply practically to musicians and to parents of youngsters in music lessons. The first internet report I saw about this study did not really hit the mark with its opening line, “If you played the recorder in first grade, you should thank your parents and music teacher now.” Obviously the vast majority of children who played recorder in elementary school have not continued to become professionals or music majors, and thus not likely recipients of the brain benefits identified in the research.
A recent TEDTalk by neuroscientist Molly Crockett titled “Beware Neuro-Bunk" addresses inaccurate brain claims by media and advertisers. They capitalize by just mentioning the brain in an article title or using a picture of a brain on product packaging. “Do you want to sell it?" she asks, then "put a brain on it.” Inaccuracies can result from the fact that the same brain part can perform multiple functions. Borrowing one of Crockett’s examples, consider brain scans which suggest that music activates the anterior insula, a part of the brain linked to pleasure and love (e.g., Brown, Martinez, & Parsons, 2004). If music activates the insula, and the insula is associated with pleasure and love, then we have brain evidence that music produces happiness, right? Well, unfortunately the insula is also known to be involved in feelings of disgust and pain!
Good scientists are careful to address such points in their research reports. In their write-ups, however, they are also entitled to discuss plausible interpretations of their data. They may draw from past psychological literature to offer a theory. (Note, Brown et al., 2004, used interviews with their participants to further establish that music elicits positive feelings.) Researchers are usually judicious in discussing their findings, and clearly indicate when they’re being speculative. In a typical media report, quotes from researchers are the most restrained and carefully worded statements of the entire piece.
When people overlook important details, it can lead to some pretty fantastic claims about the benefits of music, such as the so-called “Mozart effect” of the 1990s. The original study found that college students did better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to a 10 minute Mozart piano piece, as compared to sitting in silence or hearing a relaxation tape (Rauscher, Shaw, & Ky, 1993). This very specific result somehow morphed into a “music makes kids smarter” movement that was embraced by many in the field of music education. In a grand display of irony, one governor aspired to raise the intelligence of his state through a rather misinformed initiative, proposing a law that a Classical music CD be issued to the parents of every newborn baby. As much as I support broadening the musical exposure of people, I’m not in favor of doing so under the guise of improving things like general intelligence, mathematical understanding, and standardized test scores. The wave of excitement for the Mozart effect eventually receded, as other researchers were unable to replicate the study. Perhaps also, people saw the folly of using music to improve math knowledge, instead of…well, simply offering better math instruction. The current brain-based music claims are not going unchallenged either. University of Toronto psychologist Glenn Schellenberger has been an outspoken critic of efforts to present music lessons as intelligence boosters. While emphasizing the value of music education, he asserts that to desire it for any transfer effects beyond music “is a complete waste of time.”
Perhaps a good starting point is applying some common sense to claims that music affects other abilities. In other words, if music does improve a certain cognitive function, is there reasonable explanation for it? For example, another recent study found that school-based instrumental music instruction improved the verbal memory skills of children (Rodin, Kreutz, & Bongard, 2012). Verbal memory has to do with how well people commit to memory words that they hear. The music instruction in the study included singing, rhythmic clapping, and pitch identification exercises—all activities that involve listening. In explaining their findings, the researchers point to similarities in the brain’s auditory processing of speech and musical sounds.
Musicians don't enter the profession to raise their IQ or improve their visual-spatial reasoning. People get involved with music for the musical benefits. As I’ve written elsewhere, I think musicians and arts advocates are best served by promoting the artistic and expressive outcomes of music experience. A couple of the recent brain-based music articles have included this quote by McGill University musician-neuroscientist Dan Levitin: “There are benefits to having a society where more people are engaged with the arts, so even if music instruction doesn't make you a better mathematician or a better athlete, even if it only gives you the enjoyment of music, I think that is a good end in and of itself.” I couldn’t have said it better.
Brown, S., Martinez, M. J., Parsons, L. M. (2004). Passive music listening spontaneously engages limbic and paralimbic systems. Neuroreport, 15, 2033-2037.
Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.
Roden, I., Kreutz, G., & Bongard, S. (2012). Effects of a school-based instrumental music program on verbal and visual memory in primary school children: A longitudinal study. Frontiers in Psychology 3:572. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00572.
Steele, C. J., Bailey, J. A., Zatorre, R. J., & Penhune, V. B. (2013). Early musical training and white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum: Evidence for a sensitive period. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(3), 1282-1290.
Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody
Source of image: Café psicologico on Flickr Creative Commons