- Listening to music does not make you smarter, as first reported with the "Mozart effect," but listening to music can slow cognitive decline.
- On the other hand, habitually playing a musical instrument can increase brain tissue volume and improve cognitive skills such as visual memory.
- These benefits are strongest when musical training starts at a young age, but can still be significant when instruments are learned in adulthood.
Does listening to music make you smarter?
About 30 years ago, Rauscher et al published a study of children in the prestigious journal Nature, showing that just listening to Mozart could increase a child’s cognitive abilities, such as scores on the Stanford-Binet subtask on spatial reasoning. Although other researchers later replicated these results (albeit with much smaller effects) in children and adults, today the consensus of neuroscientists is that listening to Mozart, or other classical music, improves performance not by growing your brain, but by temporarily elevating your arousal and mood so that you perform better. Thus, the so-called Mozart effect is really just an example of the well-known effect of arousal on performance (alert people do better on cognitive tasks than sleepy people).
Recently, however, some researchers have started to re-examine the benefits of listening to music—not in children, but in dementia patients.
A 2018 literature review in the journal Dementia Neuropsychologia, summarizing the results of 24 different studies, concluded that exposing Alzheimer’s patients to music, especially familiar music, improved both mood and memory in dementia patients. Scientists involved in the research hypothesize that musical memories are often preserved in dementia patients, and that activating those memories can help access associated memories. These findings were replicated and extended in a 2021 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, by Dr. Michael Thaut and colleagues at the University of Toronto.
But does playing a musical instrument make you smarter?
We can conclude from the above research that listening to music doesn’t necessarily make you smarter, but can elevate your mood and arousal and help you temporarily perform better, and even slow cognitive decline later in life.
But what about actively playing a musical instrument vs. passively listening to music? There the research on positive long-term cognitive effects of music is much more compelling.
Another review article in Dementia Neuropsychologia, by Rodrigues et al, “Musical training, neuroplasticity and cognition,” shows that learning to play a musical instrument, then practicing that instrument, can actually grow parts of your brain associated with perceiving and playing music (corpus callosum, cerebellum, hippocampus, temporal neocortex ). These “trophic” benefits of playing an instrument are larger the earlier in development musical training starts, but measurable increases in brain tissue size have even been found in musicians who did not start playing an instrument until well into adulthood.
Rodrigues et al go on to point out that numerous studies suggest that the physical changes to the brain have functional significance, with trained musicians exhibiting elevated performance, relative to non-musicians, in cognitive tasks such as visuospatial processing and visual memory.
Of course, teasing apart nature/nurture questions (i.e., are musicians just born smarter or become smarter with practice?) is not straightforward, but longitudinal studies (involving before-and-after experiments in individual test subjects) by Dr. Lutz Jancke at the University of Zurich support the idea that brain and cognitive changes associated with playing an instrument can be acquired vs inherited.
One more thing, before you take up an instrument to grow your brain
The foregoing studies strongly suggest that you can grow your brain, improve cognitive skills, and delay cognitive decline by regularly playing a musical instrument. But, if you are really motivated to beef up your brain and cognitive skills, a broad range of studies in brain plasticity, summarized by Dr. Lawrence Katz in the book Keep Your Brain Alive, suggest that you should not stick with one instrument, but constantly teach yourself to play unfamiliar instruments, so that you expose your brain to constant novelty.
According to Dr. Katz, your brain is like your muscles: If you do weight training at constant loads, your muscles will grow to a certain point, then stop gaining strength. Just as with your muscles, if you want to continue to grow your brain, you must continuously challenge it with novel or increasingly difficult tasks.
I know, that sounds like an uncomfortable amount of work. But we can’t stay comfortable while venturing out of our comfort zones, can we?
Corinne E. Fischer, Nathan Churchill, Melissa Leggieri, Veronica Vuong, Michael Tau, Luis R. Fornazzari, Michael H. Thaut, Tom A. Schweizer. Long-Known Music Exposure Effects on Brain Imaging and Cognition in Early-Stage Cognitive Decline: A Pilot Study. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 2021; 84 (2): 819 DOI: .