About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

October 11, 2012


by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Musically educated kids do better in school, with stronger reading skills, increased math abilities, and higher general intelligence scores. Music even seems to improve social development, as people believe music helps them be better team players and have higher self-esteem. “Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain, our study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning,” said Dr. Nina Kraus of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. “Our research captures a much larger section of the population with implications for educational policy makers and the development of auditory training programs that can generate long-lasting positive outcomes.”

The media has 'retweeted' these results here, and here and in many other places, for those not accustomed to reading scientific journals. The conclusion is based on interpretation of "auditory brainstem responses" (ABR), brain electrical potentials responding to sounds and recorded from the scalps of college students after being filtered (the potentials, not the students) though a unique electronic system. A greater "signal-to-noise" ratio of the response, Dr. Kraus believes, is a result of musical activity--practicing, playing, listening--for years during childhood and adolescence.

Quoted in Scientific American, Dr. Kraus said: “To learn to read, you need to have good working memory, the ability to disambiguate speech sounds, make sound-to-meaning connections. Each one of these things really seems to be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.”

That beneficial effect of early (in life) musical training has become a hot topic lately, just at the time that funding for music education is being withdrawn from many American schools. Dr. Kraus' results are more convincing than most other studies that compared groups of musically-trained subjects with groups of them not musically trained. Most of those studies found an association but did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Which is the case? Are musically-trained children more likely to perform well on a variety of tests of cognitive ability? Or are children with higher IQs are more likely than their lower-IQ counterparts to take music lessons?

I hope Dr. Kraus' model--especially the correlation of increased signal-to-noise of filtered ABR's with lasting increased abilities--proves valid (it may have already been but I just discovered it yesterday) because it seems to confirm what some educators have intuitively believed for a long time, not to mention what I have wondered about myself. That also includes the health and cognitive benefits of practicing and playing the flute well into old age! It seems to me good mental and physical exercise, and sometimes even meditation--when I mindlessly run through scales while my brain remains in neutral.

Addendum: January 11, 2013: Another study from Germany, carefully controlled and planned, produced similar but more specific results that are, "... consistent with and extend previous research by suggesting that children receiving music training may benefit from improvements in their verbal memory skills."

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