This is Your Brain on … Music

Alan Meerow

Ask any musician about the power of music and they are likely to become, well, rhapsodic. Talk to any self-admitted music lover, whether they play an instrument or only listen, and she will no doubt recount some almost otherworldly experience of healing, spiritual upliftment, or emotive power from a particular piece of music. Now, in the 21st century, neuroscience and psychology have caught up with intuition. Yes, music matters, in ways we have only just before imagined.

The most profound effects of music are delivered when one learns how to play music, especially if this process is initiated at a young age, though even late-bloomers can reap the positive benefits. Learning the art of music literally changes our brains in ways that can last a lifetime.

Dr, Nina Kraus discusses her research with Todd Rundgren

Dr. Nina Kraus is the Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology at Northwestern University. It is in her Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory where research   supported by the National Science Foundation has demonstrated that as little as four year of musical education improves the brains ability to quickly process sound and respond to it, not only the phonetic content of sound, but the emotional context as well. Music training somehow hones the neural pathways involved in aural cognition, but extend beyond into the function of memory. The benefits accrue early but persist as people age. Musicians retain better memory than non-musicians as they grow older, along with the ability to recognize speech patterns against a noisy background.

The positive effects of music education in young people also include increases in vocabulary, non-verbal reasoning, fine motor skills, and higher IQ. These cognitive boasts are no flashes-in-the-pan; early music training builds a neural foundation in the brain that maintains itself into one’s twilight years. Researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, a neurologist at the Emory University School of Medicine (the research was conducted while she was at the University of Kansas Medical Center), completed studies of people between the ages of 60 and 83. The study sample was split into three groups: 1/3 of the individuals had no musical training, 1/3 had 1 to 9 years, and the last third has 10 or more years. Participants were screened for signs of Alzheimer’s, and were equivalent in degree of education, health and fitness. When the subjects were given a number of standard tests psychological tests oriented towards neurological development, those who had studied music longest received the highest scores in areas like nonverbal and spatial memory, object naming, and absorbing and applying new information. Those individuals with no musical training were the poorest performers, while those with 1-9 tears of playing an instrument were intermediate. The amazing thing is that these beneficial effects persist late into life, even if decades have gone by without the individual picking up their instrument. A subsequent study by Hanna-Pladdy reinforced these conclusions, and also supported the view that beginning musical training before the age of nine and continuing for at least ten years provided the biggest payoff later in life, benefits such as higher verbal memory. This was the case no matter how much additional education was completed. In fact, Hanna-Pladdy reported that the people who benefited the most in later years from the music training they experienced in their youth were those with overall less academic achievement. In other words, music education can compensate in part for impoverished academic experience, all other things being equal.

Physical changes in the brain are associated with learning how to play music. In 2003, Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug discovered a larger amount of gray matter in the brains of adult musicians compared to non-¬musicians. He and his associates determined that structural changes in the brain involved with improved motor skills and hearing appear after as little as 15 months of early childhood music education.

Understand that the positive effects of music training are not be confused with the so-called “Mozart effect” that purports that merely listening to classical music can improve academic performance. The scientific studies referenced above are about the myriad of beneficial consequences of actively engaging the brain with the discipline of learning how to play music.

As public education budgets shrink, musical training and other arts programs are often the first to receive the axe, assuming that they were available in the first place. Schools in disadvantaged communities are usually the hardest hit, despite the evidence that music education can mitigate consequences of poor academic training. A report in 2012 from the U.S. Department of Education claimed that some degree of music education was offered in 94 percent of elementary and 91 percent of secondary schools, but it also uncovered a disturbing contrast between their availability in high-poverty vs. low-poverty school districts. The Harmony Project is a pioneering program that has put the research of scientists like Dr. Kraus into practice, targeting at-risk kids in inner-city Los Angeles. The Project, founded by Dr. Margaret Martin in 2001, donates instruments and instruction at no cost, as long as the kids remain in school, and has so far established over a dozen orchestras in under-achieving schools.

The Spirit of Harmony Foundation seeks not to duplicate the efforts of others, but to augment them by becoming a positive force in extending the benefits of playing music, so soundly proven by 21st century science, to youth with the greatest need of a helping hand. We now know just how music education can change lives, and the more we can bring this knowledge into practice at the grass roots, so can we change the world.

More reading

Gaser, C. and G. Schlaug. 2003. Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians. The Journal of Neuroscience 23: 9240–9245.

Hanna-Pladdy B. and A. MacKay. 2011. The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging. Neuropsychology 25:378-386.

Hanna-Pladdy, B. and B. Gajewski. 2012. Recent and past musical activity predicts cognitive aging variability: direct comparison with general lifestyle activities. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 6:198. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00198.

Hyde, K. L., J. Lerch, A. Norton, M. Forgeard, E. Winner, A. C. Evans, and G. Schlaug. 2009. The effects of musical training on structural brain development: a longitudinal study. The Neurosciences and Music III: Disorders and Plasticity: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1169: 182–186.

Kraus, N. and B. Chandrasekaran. 2010. Music training for the development of auditory skills. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience 11: 599-605.

Kraus, N., D. L. Strait, and A. Parbery-Clark. 2012. Cognitive factors shape brain networks for auditory skills: spotlight on auditory working memory. The Neurosciences and Music IV: Learning and Memory. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1252: 100–107.

Web links to numerous media articles about the findings of Dr. Kraus and other researchers.


Alan Meerow works as a tropical plant research biologist in Florida and is the managing editor of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation blog pages.

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