Lucy Patston and Lynette Tippett, two scientists at the University of Auckland, set out to investigate whether the brains of musicians process music in the same brain areas where language is processed. Along the way they also found some interesting results about the effects of background music on thought.

 We now have substantial evidence that musical training affects the brain at a physical level. The brains of musicians and non-musicians are different in a number of ways, and musical training may change the underlying neural organization of various cognitive activities. One area of continuing debate is the extent to which the areas of music and language processing in the brain might overlap, and whether musical training might have an influence.

 Patston and Tippett tested two groups of adults: 36 expert musicians and 36 non-musicians. The musicians had each had at least 10 years musical training and had performed in university or at a national level. The non-musicians had less than four years musical training, and most of them had no training. Each participant completed language comprehension tests and tests of visuospatial ability, and each test was given under three conditions. Participants completed the tests in silence and with two different types of background music – classical pieces played on the piano, correctly in one condition and with some obvious harmonic mistakes in another condition.

 When Patston and Tippett went over their results they found that the musicians performed better than the non-musicians on both types of tests and under all conditions. These results are consistent with other findings comparing children who have had musical training with children who have not, as well as with some research on adults. Musical training seems to enhance cognitive abilities. (The researchers note that the musicians in their study may simply have been smarter than the non-musicians, and that this was the reason for their superior performance, rather than any advantage gained from musical training or any effect of the background music. Although the musicians and the non-musicians were matched for verbal and visual intelligence, the experimenters did not give the participants full-scale IQ tests.)

 For non-musicians, it didn’t seem to matter whether they took the tests in silence or with background music, and it also didn’t seem to matter whether the music was played correctly or incorrectly. (Indeed, only 2 of the non-musicians, compared with 27 of the musicians, even noticed that the incorrectly played music sounded strange!) Looking more closely at the musicians’ test results, Patston and Tippett found that they performed equally well on the visuospatial tests, whether the tests were given in silence or with background music. This is what the researchers expected to find, since music is processed in different brain areas than are visuospatial stimuli. One should not affect the other. With the language comprehension tests, however, the musicians performed worse when the music played, compared to doing the tests in silence. This result is consistent with music and language being processed by the same neural networks. The musicians made more errors with music playing because both activities (hearing the music and doing the language tests) used the same brain areas.

 Is there another possible explanation? Could it be that the results of the experiment simply reflect the stress of divided attention and that the musicians made more errors because they were distracted by the music? If that were the case, then we would expect an increased rate of error on both the visuospatial test and the language comprehension test. As it turns out, only the language comprehension test was affected. This is consistent with the hypothesis that the musicians’ brains processed music and language using the same neural networks.

 How else do the brains of musicians and non-musicians differ, and what exactly are the reasons for the cognitive advantage that musicians seem to share? Might focused training in other areas (perhaps the visual arts, dance, or the martial arts) reap similar benefits? This is a fascinating area of research, and I look forward to emerging results.


Lucy L. M. Patston and Lynette J. Tippett. The Effect of Background Music on Cognitive Performance in Musicians and Nonmusicians. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal Vol. 29, No. 2, Music Training and Nonmusical Abilities (December 2011), pp. 173-183.

Why Music Moves Us

The emotional, physical, and cognitive effects of music.
Jeanette Bicknell

Jeanette Bicknell, Ph.D., is the coeditor of Song, Songs, and Singing and the author of Why Music Moves Us.

Most Recent Posts from Why Music Moves Us

When You Ask a Child to Sing ….

Research in music can reveal fascinating cultural differences

Can the Right Music Make You Feel More Powerful?

A new study reveals how our minds respond to certain beats.

4 Reasons We Listen to Sad Music, When We're Sad

Research proves that Elton John was right: Sad songs say so much.