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10 Ways Musical Training Boosts Brain Power

Neuroscience offers more proof that musical training is good for your brain.

E.O. Hoppe / Public Doman
Source: E.O. Hoppe / Public Doman

Did you play a musical instrument when you were growing up? Do you continue to play an instrument today? Neuroscientists continue to find evidence that musical training tremendously benefits a child’s brain development in ways that can improve cognitve function throughout his or her lifespan.

As the father of a 7-year-old, I am grateful that my daughter is fortunate enough to have access to musical training and has developed a love of playing both the piano and violin.

Unfortunately, budget cuts have put music and art classes on the back burner for most of our nation's students. Research from the U.S. Department of Education found that 75 percent of U.S. high school students "rarely or never" take extracurricular lessons in music or the arts.

Budget cuts that reduce music programs may backfire in the long run. Musical training lays down neural scaffolding that improves the brain’s ability to hardwire connections between various brain regions. Musical training improves brain power across the board and also nurtures one's ability to be creative and think outside the box.

It’s no coincidence that Einstein was a master violinist and a revolutionary physicist. 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."

An October 2013 study found that Albert Einstein's brilliance may be linked to the fact that his brain hemispheres were extremely well-connected. The ability to use right brain creativity and left brain logic simultaneously may have been part of what made Einstein an incredible genius.

More and more studies are linking musical training with improved brain function and higher academic achievement. Practicing a musical instrument regularly engages all four hemispheres of your brain at an electrical, chemical and architectural level which optimizes brain power.

Musical training also improves focus, reduces stress, and could be an antidote for the pressure that children feel to do well on standardized testing as part of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Standards.

Pixabay / Public Domain
Source: Pixabay / Public Domain

Ten Ways Musical Training Boosts Brain Power

  1. Improves verbal memory and childhood literacy
  2. Babies who have music lessons smile more and communicate better
  3. Benefits brain plasticity throughout a lifespan
  4. Trained musicians have superior multisensory processing skills
  5. Improves white matter connectivity
  6. Increases blood flow in the brain
  7. Improves executive function
  8. Thickens gray matter of the cortex
  9. Reduces academic achievement gaps
  10. Orchestrates coordinated neuroplasticity in the aging brain

I compiled the list above in chronological order. There has been so much research on this topic in recent years. I wanted to create a timeline that shows the evolution of these findings in recent years.

Before reading any farther please take a few minutes to watch this YouTube video of Nina Kraus—Hugh Knowles Professor of Neurobiology, Physiology and Communication Sciences at Northwestern University—describing the powerful neurobiological roots of music held in the deepest regions of our brainstem.

Below is a more detailed analysis of 10 ways that musical training boosts brain power:

#1. Musical Training Improves Verbal Memory and Childhood Literacy

In October of 2011, researchers from the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University led by Dr. Nina Kraus tested children on their ability to read and to recognize words as related to musical training.

The study, "Subcortical processing of speech regularities predicts reading and music aptitude in children," was published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Functions.

The researchers found that the musical ability was related to reading ability. A good score on the auditory working memory test was related to better reading and to the rhythm aspect of musical aptitude. In a press release Dr. Kraus explained this saying,

"Both musical ability and literacy correlated with enhanced electrical signals within the auditory brainstem. Structural equation modeling of the data revealed that music skill, together with how the nervous system responds to regularities in auditory input and auditory memory/attention accounts for about 40% of the difference in reading ability between children. These results add weight to the argument that music and reading are related via common neural and cognitive mechanisms and suggests a mechanism for the improvements in literacy seen with musical training."

#2. Babies Who Have Music Lessons Smile More and Communicate Better

A May 2012 study from McMaster University found that very early musical training can benefit children even before they’re able to walk or talk. Babies who participated in the interactive music classes showed better early communication skills, like pointing at objects and waving goodbye. These babies also smiled more and were easier to soothe.

The research, led by Laurel Trainor and David Gerry, found that one-year-old babies who participated in interactive music classes with their parents smiled more, and communicated better. They also showed earlier and more sophisticated brain responses to music.

The researchers of this study concluded that their results suggest that the infant brain could be particularly plastic with regard to musical exposure.

#3. Early Musical Training Benefits Brain Plasticity in Later Life

An August 2012 study, "Older Adults Benefit from Music Training Early in Life: Biological Evidence for Long-Term Training-Driven Plasticity," also led by Nina Kraus, found that older adults who had musical training as children but hadn't practiced their instrument in decades still had a faster brain response to a speech sound than individuals who never played an instrument.

As people age, changes occur in the brain that compromise hearing. Older adults typically have a slower response to sounds that change quickly which can make it difficult to interpret speech. Musicians who continue to practice a musical instrument throughout their life generally offset these cognitive declines.

These findings suggest that early musical training has a long lasting positive effect on how the brain processes sound.

#4. Trained Musicians Have Superior Multisensory Processing Skills

A November 2013 study reported that trained musicians appear to have superior multisensory processing skills. The research, led by Julie Roy from the University of Montreal, found that musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight.

To test the ability of musicians to differentiate between different sensory inputs, Roy and her colleagues used an audiotactile task in which participants heard a quick series of beeps, while they simultaneously felt a single vibration on their finger.

The researchers told participants to ignore the beeps and to only report on the tactile stimulation on their finger. While musicians consistently reported feeling just a single vibration, nonmusicians were “tricked” into feeling more vibrations as a result of the multiple beeps they heard. In a press release Roy described the research saying,

"The ability of the nervous system to integrate information from all senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, self-motion, and taste—is critical to day-to-day life, but even more important for some specific pursuits. High-level musical ability requires a variety of sensory and cognitive abilities developed over the course of years of training. Recent research has revealed that long-term musical training improves the brain’s ability to adapt, and shapes brain regions involved with audiovisual processing."

Roy concluded that musicians appear to be more adept at multisensory processing. The research suggests that well trained musicians are able to segregate or integrate the information from a range of senses with heightened discrimination and better focus.

#5. Early Music Lessons Improve White Matter Connectivity

A February 2013 study from the Journal of Neuroscience, “Early Musical Training and White-Matter Plasticity in the Corpus Callosum: Evidence for a Sensitive Period,” suggests that musical training before the age of seven has a significant effect on the development of the human brain.

The research—led by Concordia University psychology professor Virginia Penhune in collaboration with Robert J. Zatorre—found that the younger a musician started, the greater the brain connectivity benefits.

The researchers found that people who began musical training early in life had stronger connections between motor regions. When comparing brain structure, musicians who started early showed enhanced white matter in the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibres that connects the left and right motor regions of the brain.

This research illustrates the relevance of the recent discovery that Albert Einstein had extraordinary white matter connectivity between brain hemispheres.

This study provides strong evidence that the period between age six and eight is a highly "sensitive period" when musical training seems to significantly affect brain development and can produce long-lasting changes in motor abilities and brain structure. In a press release says Penhune concluded,

"Learning to play an instrument requires coordination between hands and with visual or auditory stimuli. Practicing an instrument before age seven likely boosts the normal maturation of connections between motor and sensory regions of the brain, creating a framework upon which ongoing training can build."

#6. Musical Training Increases Blood Flow in the Brain

A May 2014 study found that brief musical training can increase blood flow to the left hemisphere of the brain. The study was conducted by undergraduate student Amy Spray and Dr G. Meyer from the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool.

The researchers believe that their findings suggest that the areas responsible for music and language share common brain pathways. In a press release Spray explained the findings:

"It was fascinating to see that the similarities in blood flow signatures could be brought about after just half an hour of simple musical training. This suggests that the correlated brain patterns were the result of using areas thought to be involved in language processing. Therefore we can assume that musical training results in a rapid change in the cognitive mechanisms utilised for music perception and these shared mechanisms are usually employed for language."

#7. Musical Training Improves Executive Function

A June 2014 study from Boston Children’s Hospital, “Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians,” found a possible biological link between early musical training and improved executive functioning in both children and adults.

Executive functions are the high-level cognitive processes that allow us to quickly process and retain information, regulate our behaviors, make good choices, solve problems, plan and adjust to changing mental demands.

This is one of the first studies to examine the effects of musical training on executive functions. Senior investigator Nadine Gaab, PhD, of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children's stated 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. 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."

#8. Musical Training Thickens Gray Matter in the Cortex

A December 2014 study from the University of Vermont found that musical training might also help kids focus their attention, control their emotions and diminish their anxiety by bulking up the gray matter of the cortex.

The study, "Cortical Thickness Maturation and Duration of Music Training: Health-Promoting Activities Shape Brain Development," was published in the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

James Hudziak, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, and colleagues including Matthew Albaugh, Ph.D., and graduate student research assistant Eileen Crehan, call their study "the largest investigation of the association between playing a musical instrument and brain development."

As children age, the cortex—the outer layer of the brain—changes in thickness. In previous analysis of MRI data, Hudziak and his team found that thickening or thinning in specific areas of the cortex correlated with the occurrence of anxiety and depression, attention problems, aggression and behavior control issues. With this study, Hudziak and his colleages wanted to see if musical training would influence those indicators in the cortex.

As expected, Hudziak found MRI evidence that musical training altered the motor areas of the brain, because the activity requires control and coordination of the movements necessary to play an instrument.

Interestingly, these changes were also found to affect behavior-regulating areas of the brain. A child's musical background appears to correlate with cortical thickness in brain areas that play a critical role in inhibitory control, as well as aspects of emotion processing.

In a press release the authors conclude, "Such statistics, when taken in the context of our present neuroimaging results, underscore the vital importance of finding new and innovative ways to make music training more widely available to youths, beginning in childhood."

#9. Musical Training Can Reduce Academic Achievement Gaps

An August 2014 report from the American Psychological Association (APA) stated that learning to play a musical instrument or to sing can help disadvantaged children strengthen their reading and language skills and could reduce academic achievement gaps.

The findings involved hundreds of kids participating in musical training programs in Chicago and Los Angeles public schools. The positive role that musical training can have for youth living in impoverished areas was presented by Nina Kraus at APA's 122nd annual convention.

Kraus' research has concluded that musical training enhances the way children's nervous systems process sounds in busy or chaotic environments—like a classroom or a playground. After two years of musical training, neural responses to sound were faster and more precise in students who had musical training than from another type of enrichment classes.

The improved neural functions caused by musical training can lead to enhanced memory and attention spans which make it easier for kids to stay focused in the classroom and to improve their communication skills.

Kraus points out that traditionally research on the impact of musical training has been primarily conducted on middle- to upper-income music students participating in private music lessons. In a press release Kraus concluded,

"Research has shown that there are differences in the brains of children raised in impoverished environments that affect their ability to learn. While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap."

#10. Musical Training Orchestrates Neuroplasticity in the Aging Brain

A February 2015 study, “Musical Training Orchestrates Coordinated Neuroplasticity in Auditory Brainstem and Cortex to Counteract Age-Related Declines in Categorical Vowel Perception," was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The study was led by the Rotman Research Institute (RRI) at Baycrest Health Sciences in Canada. The researchers found that older adults who had musical training in their youth were 20 percent faster in identifying speech sounds than their non-musician peers on speech identification tests.

Gavin Bidelman, who led the study as a post-doctoral fellow at the RRI, concluded in a press release, "Musical activities are an engaging form of cognitive brain training and we are now seeing robust evidence of brain plasticity from musical training not just in younger brains, but in older brains too."

Conclusion: Musical Training Can Boost Brain Function Throughout Your Lifespan

Evidence is mounting that musical training boosts brain power and cognitive function in children and adults. The neural enhancements that are gained through musical training early in life extend throughout your lifespan and into old age.

Hopefully, these findings will inspire parents and policy makers to advocate for musical training in school as an enjoyable and fulfilling outlet that also has the power to boost brain power and improve reading, writing, and arithmetic. Musical training keeps your brain sharp as you age and could be an integral part of rehabilitative programs for any older adults coping with cognitive decline.

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

© Christopher Bergland 2015. All rights reserved.

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