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Music & Intelligence: Will Listening to Music Make You Smarter?
Does listening to music make you smarter? Will learning to play an instrument make your brain bigger than normal?
Questions like these have popped up everywhere in the past few years, not just in scientific journals.
Recently, there has been a lot of media attention on research related to brain development and music, and the reporting of the latest research has excited parents of music-loving young children.
But all this information, as well as some misinformation, has led to general confusion about the role of music and music training in the development of the human brain. Bottom line: If you’re confused by everything you’ve read about music studies and brain development, you’re definitely not alone.
This is partly because the phrase “Mozart effect” has been popularized in the media to describe any situation in which music has a positive effect on cognition or behavior.
In fact, the Mozart Effect dates back to a 1993 study by Francis Rauscher, Gordon Shaw, and Kathryn Kaye, published in the prestigious journal Nature. Researchers found that 36 college students who listened to a Mozart sonata for 10 minutes performed better on a subsequent spatio-temporal task than those who were given quiet instructions or listened to it in silence.
The magical media reported this interesting study as “Mozart Makes You Smarter,” an oversimplification of the original results.
As Rauscher explained in a later paper, the Mozart effect had only been studied in adults, lasted only a few minutes, and was found only on a spatiotemporal basis. However, the finding has sparked a flurry of books, CDs and websites claiming that listening to classical music makes children smarter.
Not to mention the public confusion surrounding the Mozart effect, the scientific controversy has given parents appropriate skepticism. They ask, “Should my kids be concerned about music education?”
The answer to this question remains yes, as numerous studies have proven that studying music contributes to the positive development of the human brain. Other researchers have replicated the original 1993 finding that listening to Mozart improves spatial thinking. And a further study by Rauscher and colleagues in 1994 showed that after 8 months of hands-on instruction, preschoolers showed a 46% increase in spatial reasoning IQ, an important skill for some types of mathematical reasoning.
In particular, early music training strengthens the connections between neurons in the brain, leading to the creation of new pathways. But research shows that musical training has a non-trivial relationship with the long-term development of specific brain regions.
In 1994, an article was published in Discover magazine that described research by Gottfried Schlaug, Hermann Steinmetz, and their colleagues at the University of Düsseldorf. The group compared magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of 27 classically trained right-handed male piano or string players with those of 27 right-handed male non-musicians.
Interestingly, they found that musicians’ planum temporale, a brain structure associated with auditory processing, was larger in the left hemisphere and smaller in the right hemisphere compared to non-musicians. Musicians also had thicker nerve fibers between the brain’s hemispheres. The difference was particularly striking among musicians who started training before the age of seven.
According to Schlau, music studies promote the growth of the corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain. He found that musicians who started training before the age of seven had 10-15% thicker bodies than non-musicians.
At the time, Schlaug and other researchers hypothesized that a larger corpus callosum might improve motor control by speeding up connections between the brain.
Since then, research by Dartmouth music psychologist Peter Janata, published in the journal Science in 2002, has confirmed that music stimulates more connections between the brain’s left and right hemispheres, the areas responsible for emotion and memory, than almost any other stimulus.
Janata led a team of scientists who reported that some areas of the brain of professional musicians were 5% larger than those with little or no musical training, and that the auditory area of professional musicians was 130% larger than that of non-musicians. In fact, the corpus callosum, the four-inch nerve cord that connects the left and right sides of the brain, is up to 15% larger in musicians who start studying music at an early age.
Although research has shown that regional brain connectivity and some types of spatial thinking function improve with music training, detailed and skilled motor movements also improve.
In musicians, the corpus callosum appears to be essential for tasks such as finger coordination. This part of the brain will grow like a weightlifter’s biceps to handle the workload assigned to it.
A study by Dr. Timo Krings, published in Neuroscience Letters in 2000, required pianists and non-musicians of the same age and gender to perform a precise sequence of finger movements. The non-musicians were able to perform the same movements as the pianists, but the pianists showed less activity in their brains. Scientists have concluded that pianists’ brains are more efficient at performing skilled movements than non-musicians.
Studying music affects the human brain and its development in many ways. But what to make of all the research, especially when it comes to choosing the best area of musical study or evaluating yourself and your offspring?
A 2000 article in MuSICA Research Notes by NM Weinberger makes the following interesting point: Although the Mozart effect may not have lived up to the public’s unfounded hopes, it has spurred public interest in music research. And listening to ten minutes of Mozart can make someone interested in unfamiliar music and open up a new world.
Regardless of the hype surrounding the Mozart effect, the overall academic evidence that studying music is a tool for brain development is compelling.
Dr. Frank Wilson of the California School of Medicine in San Francisco said that instrumental exercise has been shown to improve coordination, concentration, memory, and improve vision and hearing. His research has shown that engaging in music engages and develops the brain’s motor system and enhances the entire nervous system in a way that no other activity can. Dr. Wilson believes that musical instruction is absolutely “essential” to the overall development of the brain.
Bottom line: Studying and practicing music can help brain development in a variety of important ways. After all, if you love music, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving it a try!
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