Music and Brain Science

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Associate.

Music is a Curious Thing. Archaeologists have found flutes that were created around 42,000 years ago. The location of cave paintings made over 10,000 years ago interestingly point to sound and music being an important part of the ritualistic experience. While it’s likely that we’ll never know the details of how the human ability of sound identification and replication transformed into the art of music, it is clear that interacting with sound has long been an important part of our cultural existence and development.

Listen to a recording of the oldest playable flute


from the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Music’s Effects. What effect does music have on the brain? With the help of neuroscience, researchers now have a clearer look inside the skull, which has allowed for interesting discoveries as well as telling questions. Scientists have identified neural pathways that are almost exclusively music-activated, when before it was speculated that music was just a hodgepodge of different brain areas working together. A growing number of studies point to valuable and relevant information regarding music and its interrelationship with education. Many questions still remain regarding the hows and whys of music, but there is no need to wait for more evidence of the positive effects before infusing music into schools more fully.

Throughout Life.
Music provides measurable benefits not only for the developing childhood brain, but also for the duration of the brain’s aging process. In 2003, Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug and colleagues found that after only 15 months of music instrument training, the brains of young children show growth in areas related to auditory and motor improvements. A further study by Hanna-Pladdy and Gajewski in 2012 shows that musical instrument practice for more than 10 years helps to preserve cognitive functioning through life, and that if musical skills acquisition is started at age 9 or younger it provides even more brain-benefit in old age. Overall, it appears that learning musical instrument skills early in life and continuing the practice of those skills can enhance cognitive functioning even as the brain functioning of peers is starting to decline. Hanna-Pladdy and MacKay’s 2011 study also showed a strong relationship between cognitive functioning in advancing years and the amount of time participating in music throughout life. Excitingly, the results point to benefits of early and continuing participation in music that are independent of the amount of any other education received.

Unexpected Benefits.
How is music having this effect? Many studies show exactly what you might expect. By practicing specific muscular coordination and listening activities, the corresponding areas of the brain are strengthened and enhanced. Participating in music requires translating symbols on a page into muscular actions that integrate body awareness to a high degree. Music is generally performed with and for others. This requires a high level of awareness to balance and adjust within the group.

It’s no surprise that music is a complex and multi-sensory experience. What might be unexpected, though, is how intertwined these skills are with everyday communication. Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, published a review in 2014 that highlights the effects early musical training has on the ability of the adult brain to quickly and accurately discern consonants in conversation. The adults with early musical training outperformed the non-musician adults in this activity, but amazingly the participating musical adults had not played a musical instrument in 40 years. Those who had trained the longest, though, (between 4 and 14 years), did respond the fastest. When considering how easy it is to feel isolated and lonely in situations where only portions of conversations can be understood, the value of honing auditory skills is apparent.

Valuing Evidence. The studies supporting the beneficial effects of musical training on the brain throughout life are overwhelming and continuing. The evidence is strong for taking advantage of the special window of cognitive development in students ages 9 and younger; continuing forward with musical instruction past age 9 also has measurable benefits. In this difficult time of limited funding and broad-reaching educational goals and requirements, it might be tempting to look to music class as a frivolous side activity, but the reality of studies show that this ancient element of the human condition has far-reaching wealth for learning and living.


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