We've seen a number of studies showing the value of music training for children's development of language skills. A new study has investigated what happens if the training doesn't begin until high school.

The study involved 40 Chicago-area high school students who were followed from their beginning at high school until their senior year. Nearly half the students had enrolled in band classes, which involved two to three hours a week of instrumental group music instruction in school. The rest had enrolled in junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), which emphasized fitness exercises during a comparable period.

The music group showed more rapid maturation in the brain's response to sound, and demonstrated prolonged heightened brain sensitivity to sound details. While all students improved in language skills tied to sound-structure awareness, the improvement was greater for those in music classes.

The finding is encouraging in that it shows that adolescent brains are still receptive to music training.

It's also encouraging in involving students from low-income areas. Children from families of lower socioeconomic status have been found to process sound less efficiently, in part because of noisier environments and also due to linguistic deprivation. A previous small study by the same researchers looked at the benefits of a free community music program for a group of disadvantaged students (the Harmony Project). In this small study, students more engaged in the program (as assessed by attendance and participation) showed greater improvement after two years, in how their brains processed speech and in their reading scores. Those who learned to play instruments also showed greater improvement than those who participated in music appreciation classes.

A study involving 124 teenagers has found that those who were most accurate at tapping along with a metronome also showed the most consistent brain responses to a synthesized speech sound "da". The finding is consistent with previous research showing links between reading ability and beat-keeping ability, and between reading ability and the consistency of the brain's response to sound. The finding also provides more support for the benefits of music training for both language skills and auditory processing.

I’d suggest that it might be particularly important for second language learning, raising the intriguing question: if you have problems learning another language, could you improve your abilities by working on your sense of rhythm?

You can find out more about the work of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at

[3475] Tierney A, Kraus N. The Ability to Move to a Beat Is Linked to the Consistency of Neural Responses to Sound. The Journal of Neuroscience [Internet]. 2013 ;33(38):14981 - 14988. Available from:

Adding to the growing evidence for the long-term cognitive benefits of childhood music training, a new study has found that even a few years of music training in childhood has long-lasting benefits for auditory discrimination.

The study involved 45 adults (aged 18-31), of whom 15 had no music training, 15 had one to five years of training, and 15 had six to eleven years. Participants were presented with different complex sounds ranging in pitch while brainstem activity was monitored.

Brainstem response to the sounds was significantly stronger in those with any sort of music training, compared to those who had never had any music training. This was a categorical difference — years of training didn’t make a difference (although some minimal length may be required — only one person had only one year of training). However, recency of training did make a difference to brainstem response, and it does seem that some fading might occur over long periods of time.

This difference in brainstem response means that those with music training are better at recognizing the fundamental frequency (lowest frequency sound). This explains why music training may help protect older adults from hearing difficulties — the ability to discriminate fundamental frequencies is crucial for understanding speech, and for processing sound in noisy environments.

[3074] Skoe E, Kraus N. A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood. The Journal of Neuroscience [Internet]. 2012 ;32(34):11507 - 11510. Available from:

I’ve talked before about the benefits of music lessons for children — most recently, for example, how music-based training 'cartoons' improved preschoolers’ verbal IQ. Now a new study extends the findings to infants.

In the study, 6-month-old babies were randomly assigned to six months of one of two types of weekly music class. The classes lasted an hour and involved either an active or passive approach.

In the active classes, parents and infants worked together to learn to play percussion instruments and sing lullabies and action songs. The classes emphasized musical expression, listening in order to play or sing at the right time, repetition, and developing parents’ awareness of their babies’ responses. There was also a CD that they were encouraged to play at home.

In the passive classes, parents and infants listened to CDs from the Baby Einstein series while playing and interacting at art, book, ball, block, and stacking cup play stations. Parents were encouraged to take home different CDs from the collection each week.

At the end of the program, those babies attending the active classes showed an earlier sensitive to pitch. Unlike infants from the passive classes, they preferred to listen to a piano piece played in key rather than one that included notes played out of key (you can hear the two versions at Their brains also showed larger and/or earlier responses to musical tones.

On the cognitive side, babies from the active classes also showed better early communication skills, like pointing at objects that are out of reach, or waving goodbye. Socially, these babies also smiled more, were easier to soothe, and showed less distress when things were unfamiliar or didn't go their way. It is presumed that these social skills are due to the development of better social interaction between parent and child.

The classes were run at two centers — one in a lower socioeconomic area, and one in a middle-class area. The teachers of the classes were unaware of the nature of the experiment. Before the classes began, all the babies had shown similar communication and social development and none had previously participated in other baby music classes. There was no interaction between socioeconomic status and intervention, and the results from both were then analyzed together. There were 38 families (out of an initial 49 at the beginning) who were still attending regularly at the end of the program, and 34 of these (of whom 16 were from the lower SES centre) completed the testing.

The exciting question is of course what long-term effects this ‘head-start’ will have on cognitive and social development. I hope the researchers will follow this up.

I talked recently about how the well-established difference in spatial ability between men and women apparently has a lot to do with confidence. I also mentioned in passing that previous research has shown that training can close the gender gap. A recent study suggests that this training may not have to be specific to spatial skills.

In the German study, 120 students were given a processing speed test and a standard mental rotation test. The students were evenly divided into three groups: musicians, athletes, and education students who didn’t participate in either sports or music.

While the expected gender gap was found among the education students, the gap was smaller among the sports students, and non-existent in the music students.

Among the education students, men got twice as many rotation problems correct as women. Among the sports students, both men and women did better than their peers in education, but since they were both about equally advantaged, a gender gap was still maintained. However, among the musicians, it was only women who benefited, bringing them up to the level of the men.

Thus, for males, athletes did best on mental rotation; for females, musicians did best.

Although it may be that those who went into music or sports had relevant “natural abilities”, the amount of training in sports/music did have a significant effect. Indeed, analysis found that the advantage of sports and music students disappeared when hours of practice and years of practicing were included.

Interestingly, too, there was an effect of processing speed. Although overall the three groups didn’t differ in processing speed, male musicians had a lower processing speed than female musicians, or male athletes (neither of which groups were significantly different from each other).

It is intriguing that music training should only benefit females’ spatial abilities. However, I’m reminded that in research showing how a few hours of video game training can help females close the gender gap, females benefited from the training far more than men. The obvious conclusion is that the males already had sufficient experience, and a few more hours were neither here nor there. Perhaps the question should rather be: why does sports practice benefit males’ spatial skills? A question that seems to point to the benefits for processing speed, but then we have to ask why sports didn’t have the same effect on women. One possible answer here is that the women had engaged in sports for a significantly shorter time (an average of 10.6 years vs 17.55), meaning that the males tended to begin their sports training at a much younger age. There was no such difference among the musicians.

(For more on spatial memory, see the aggregated news reports)

Pietsch, S., & Jansen, P. (2012). Different mental rotation performance in students of music, sport and education. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(1), 159-163. Elsevier Inc. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2011.11.012

I’ve spoken before about the association between hearing loss in old age and dementia risk. Although we don’t currently understand that association, it may be that preventing hearing loss also helps prevent cognitive decline and dementia. I have previously reported on how music training in childhood can help older adults’ ability to hear speech in a noisy environment. A new study adds to this evidence.

The study looked at a specific aspect of understanding speech: auditory brainstem timing. Aging disrupts this timing, degrading the ability to precisely encode sound.

In this study, automatic brain responses to speech sounds were measured in 87 younger and older normal-hearing adults as they watched a captioned video. It was found that older adults who had begun musical training before age 9 and engaged consistently in musical activities through their lives (“musicians”) not only significantly outperformed older adults who had no more than three years of musical training (“non-musicians”), but encoded the sounds as quickly and accurately as the younger non-musicians.

The researchers qualify this finding by saying that it shows only that musical experience selectively affects the timing of sound elements that are important in distinguishing one consonant from another, not necessarily all sound elements. However, it seems probable that it extends more widely, and in any case the ability to understand speech is crucial to social interaction, which may well underlie at least part of the association between hearing loss and dementia.

The burning question for many will be whether the benefits of music training can be accrued later in life. We will have to wait for more research to answer that, but, as music training and enjoyment fit the definition of ‘mentally stimulating activities’, this certainly adds another reason to pursue such a course.

Music-based training 'cartoons' improved preschoolers’ verbal IQ

A study in which 48 preschoolers (aged 4-6) participated in computer-based, cognitive training programs that were projected on a classroom wall and featured colorful, animated cartoon characters delivering the lessons, has found that 90% of those who received music-based training significantly improved their scores on a test of verbal intelligence, while those who received visual art-based training did not.

The music-based training involved a combination of motor, perceptual and cognitive tasks, and included training on rhythm, pitch, melody, voice and basic musical concepts. Visual art training emphasized the development of visuo-spatial skills relating to concepts such as shape, color, line, dimension and perspective. Each group received two one-hour training sessions each day in classroom, over four weeks.

Children’s abilities and brain function were tested before the training and five to 20 days after the end of the programs. While there were no significant changes, in the brain or in performance, in the children who participated in the visual art training, nearly all of those who took the music-based training showed large improvements on a measure of vocabulary knowledge, as well as increased accuracy and reaction time. These correlated with changes in brain function.

The findings add to the growing evidence for the benefits of music training for intellectual development, especially in language.

Musical aptitude relates to reading ability through sensitivity to sound patterns

Another new study points to one reason for the correlation between music training and language acquisition. In the study, 42 children (aged 8-13) were tested on their ability to read and recognize words, as well as their auditory working memory (remembering a sequence of numbers and then being able to quote them in reverse), and musical aptitude (both melody and rhythm). Brain activity was also measured.

It turned out that both music aptitude and literacy were related to the brain’s response to acoustic regularities in speech, as well as auditory working memory and attention. Compared to good readers, poor readers had reduced activity in the auditory brainstem to rhythmic rather than random sounds. Responsiveness to acoustic regularities correlated with both reading ability and musical aptitude. Musical ability (largely driven by performance in rhythm) was also related to reading ability, and auditory working memory to both of these.

It was calculated that music skill, through the functions it shares with reading (brainstem responsiveness to auditory regularities and auditory working memory) accounts for 38% of the difference in reading ability between children.

These findings are consistent with previous findings that auditory working memory is an important component of child literacy, and that positive correlations exist between auditory working memory and musical skill.

Basically what this is saying, is that the auditory brainstem (a subcortical region — that is, below the cerebral cortex, where our ‘higher-order’ functions are carried out) is boosting the experience of predictable speech in better readers. This fine-tuning may reflect stronger top-down control in those with better musical ability and reading skills. While there may be some genetic contribution, previous research makes it clear that musicians’ increased sensitivity to sound patterns is at least partly due to training.

In other words, giving young children music training is a good first step to literacy.

The children were rated as good readers if they scored 110 or above on the Test of Word Reading Efficiency, and poor readers if they scored 90 or below. There were 8 good readers and 21 poor readers. Those 13 who scored in the middle were excluded from group analyses. Good and poor readers didn’t differ in age, gender, maternal education, years of musical training, extent of extracurricular activity, or nonverbal IQ. Only 6 of the 42 children had had at least a year of musical training (of which one was a poor reader, three were average, and two were good).

Auditory brainstem responses were gathered to the speech sound /da/, which was either presented with 100% probability, or randomly interspersed with seven other speech sounds. The children heard these sounds through an earpiece in the right ear, while they listened to the soundtrack of a chosen video with the other ear.

[2603] Moreno S, Bialystok E, Barac R, Schellenberg EGlenn, Cepeda NJ, Chau T. Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function. Psychological Science [Internet]. 2011 ;22(11):1425 - 1433. Available from:

Strait, Dana L, Jane Hornickel, and Nina Kraus. “Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children.” Behavioral and brain functions : BBF 7, no. 1 (October 17, 2011): 44.

Full text is available at

I’ve always felt that better thinking was associated with my brain working ‘in a higher gear’ — literally working at a faster rhythm. So I was particularly intrigued by the findings of a recent mouse study that found that brainwaves associated with learning became stronger as the mice ran faster.

In the study, 12 male mice were implanted with microelectrodes that monitored gamma waves in the hippocampus, then trained to run back and forth on a linear track for a food reward. Gamma waves are thought to help synchronize neural activity in various cognitive functions, including attention, learning, temporal binding, and awareness.

We know that the hippocampus has specialized ‘place cells’ that record where we are and help us navigate. But to navigate the world, to create a map of where things are, we need to also know how fast we are moving. Having the same cells encode both speed and position could be problematic, so researchers set out to find how speed was being encoded. To their surprise and excitement, they found that the strength of the gamma rhythm grew substantially as the mice ran faster.

The results also confirmed recent claims that the gamma rhythm, which oscillates between 30 and 120 times a second, can be divided into slow and fast signals (20-45 Hz vs 45-120 Hz for mice, consistent with the 30-55 Hz vs 45-120 Hz bands found in rats) that originate from separate parts of the brain. The slow gamma waves in the CA1 region of the hippocampus were synchronized with slow gamma waves in CA3, while the fast gamma in CA1 were synchronized with fast gamma waves in the entorhinal cortex.

The two signals became increasingly separated with increasing speed, because the two bands were differentially affected by speed. While the slow waves increased linearly, the fast waves increased logarithmically. This differential effect could have to do with mechanisms in the source regions (CA3 and the medial entorhinal cortex, respectively), or to mechanisms in the different regions in CA1 where the inputs terminate (the waves coming from CA3 and the entorhinal cortex enter CA1 in different places).

In the hippocampus, gamma waves are known to interact with theta waves. Further analysis of the data revealed that the effects of speed on gamma rhythm only occurred within a narrow range of theta phases — but this ‘preferred’ theta phase also changed with running speed, more so for the slow gamma waves than the fast gamma waves (which is not inconsistent with the fact that slow gamma waves are more affected by running speed than fast gamma waves). Thus, while slow and fast gamma rhythms preferred similar phases of theta at low speeds, the two rhythms became increasingly phase-separated with increasing running speed.

What’s all this mean? Previous research has shown that if inputs from CA3 and the entorhinal cortex enter CA1 at the same time, the kind of long-term changes at the synapses that bring about learning are stronger and more likely in CA1. So at low speeds, synchronous inputs from CA3 and the entorhinal cortex at similar theta phases make them more effective at activating CA1 and inducing learning. But the faster you move, the more quickly you need to process information. The stronger gamma waves may help you do that. Moreover, the theta phase separation of slow and fast gamma that increases with running speed means that activity in CA3 (slow gamma source) increasingly anticipates activity in the medial entorhinal cortex (fast gamma source).

What does this mean at the practical level? Well at this point it can only be speculation that moving / exercising can affect learning and attention, but I personally am taking this on board. Most of us think better when we walk. This suggests that if you’re having trouble focusing and don’t have time for that, maybe walking down the hall or even jogging on the spot will help bring your brain cells into order!

Pushing speculation even further, I note that meditation by expert meditators has been associated with changes in gamma and theta rhythms. And in an intriguing comparison of the effect of spoken versus sung presentation on learning and remembering word lists, the group that sang showed greater coherence in both gamma and theta rhythms (in the frontal lobes, admittedly, but they weren’t looking elsewhere).

So, while we’re a long way from pinning any of this down, it may be that all of these — movement, meditation, music — can be useful in synchronizing your brain rhythms in a way that helps attention and learning. This exciting discovery will hopefully be the start of an exploration of these possibilities.

A number of studies have demonstrated the cognitive benefits of music training for children. Now research is beginning to explore just how long those benefits last. This is the second study I’ve reported on this month, that points to childhood music training protecting older adults from aspects of cognitive decline. In this study, 37 adults aged 45 to 65, of whom 18 were classified as musicians, were tested on their auditory and visual working memory, and their ability to hear speech in noise.

The musicians performed significantly better than the non-musicians at distinguishing speech in noise, and on the auditory temporal acuity and working memory tasks. There was no difference between the groups on the visual working memory task.

Difficulty hearing speech in noise is among the most common complaints of older adults, but age-related hearing loss only partially accounts for the problem.

The musicians had all begun playing an instrument by age 8 and had consistently played an instrument throughout their lives. Those classified as non-musicians had no musical experience (12 of the 19) or less than three years at any point in their lives. The seven with some musical experience rated their proficiency on an instrument at less than 1.5 on a 10-point scale, compared to at least 8 for the musicians.

Physical activity levels were also assessed. There was no significant difference between the groups.

The finding that visual working memory was not affected supports the idea that musical training helps domain-specific skills (such as auditory and language processing) rather than general ones.

A study involving 70 older adults (60-83) has found that those with at least ten years of musical training performed the best on cognitive tests, followed by those with one to nine years of musical study, with those with no musical training trailing the field.

All the musicians were amateurs who began playing an instrument at about 10 years of age. Half of the high-level musicians still played an instrument at the time of the study, but they didn't perform better on the cognitive tests than the other advanced musicians who had stopped playing years earlier. Previous research suggests that both years of musical participation and age of acquisition are critical.

All the participants had similar levels of education and fitness. The cognitive tests related to visuospatial memory, naming objects and executive function.

Hanna-Pladdy, B. & MacKay, A. 2011. The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging. Neuropsychology, 25 (3), 378-86. doi: 10.1037/a0021895

The study involved 13 patients and 14 controls, who listened to either spoken lyrics or lyrics sung with full musical accompaniment while reading the printed lyrics on a screen. The 40 lyrics were four-line excerpts of children’s songs, all characterized by having simple, unrepeated lyrics, repetitive melodies, and a perfect end-rhyme scheme for the four lines. The participants were then given these 40 lyrics mixed in with 40 other similar lyrics, and asked whether they had heard it earlier. Alzheimer’s patients were markedly more likely to recognize those they had heard sung (40% compared to 28% of the spoken). Interestingly, the controls showed no difference, although of course their performance was considerably better (77% and 74%).

It may be that setting new information, such as simple instructions, to music might help Alzheimer’s patients remember it.

On a side note, a recent study found that classical music (four short pieces by different composers) affected the heart rates of people in a vegetative state in the same way as they did those of healthy listeners, suggesting that music affects emotion at very deep level. (see

While studies have demonstrated that listening to music before doing a task can improve performance on that task, chiefly through its effect on mood, there has been little research into the effects of background music while doing the task. A new study had participants recall a list of 8 consonants in a specific order in the presence of five sound environments: quiet, liked music, disliked music, changing-state (a sequence of random digits such as "4, 7, 1, 6") and steady-state ("3, 3, 3"). The most accurate recall occurred when participants performed the task in the quieter, steady-state environments. The level of recall was similar for the changing-state and music backgrounds.

Mind you, this task (recall of random items in order) is probably particularly sensitive to the distracting effects of this sort of acoustical variation in the environment. Different tasks are likely to be differentially affected by background music, and I’d also suggest that the familiarity of the music, and possibly its predictability, also influence its impact. Personally, I am very aware of the effect of music on my concentration, and vary the music, or don’t play at all, depending on what I’m doing and my state of mind. I hope we’ll see more research into these variables.

[1683] Perham N, Vizard J. Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect?. Applied Cognitive Psychology [Internet]. 2010 ;9999(9999):n/a - n/a. Available from:


A review of the many recent studies into the effects of music training on the nervous system strongly suggests that the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other aspects of human communication, including learning. It’s suggested that actively engaging with musical sounds not only helps the plasticity of the brain, but also helps provide a stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns. Playing an instrument primes the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex situation. Moreover, it trains the brain to make associations between complex sounds and their meaning — something that is also important in language. Music training can provide skills that enable speech to be better heard against background noise — useful not only for those with some hearing impairment (it’s a common difficulty as we get older), but also for children with learning disorders. The review concludes that music training tones the brain for auditory fitness, analogous to the way physical exercise tones the body, and that the evidence justifies serious investment in music training in schools.

[1678] Kraus N, Chandrasekaran B. Music training for the development of auditory skills. Nat Rev Neurosci [Internet]. 2010 ;11(8):599 - 605. Available from:

A new study challenges the popular theory that expertise is simply a product of tens of thousands of hours of deliberate practice. Not that anyone is claiming that this practice isn’t necessary — but it may not be sufficient. A study looking at pianists’ ability to sight-read music reveals working memory capacity helps sight-reading regardless of how much someone has practiced.

The study involved 57 volunteers who had played piano for an average of 18.6 years (range from one to 57 years). Their estimated hours of overall practice ranged from 260 to 31,096 (average: 5806), and hours of sight-reading practice ranged from zero to 9,048 (average: 1487 hours). Statistical analysis revealed that although hours of practice was the most important factor, nevertheless, working memory capacity did, independently, account for a small but significant amount of the variance between individuals.

It is interesting that not only did WMC have an effect independent of hours of practice, but hours of practice apparently had no effect on WMC — although the study was too small to tell whether a lot of practice at an early age might have affected WMC (previous research has indicated that music training can increase IQ in children).

The study is also too small to properly judge the effects of the 10,000 hours deliberate practice claimed necessary for expertise: the researchers did not advise the number of participants that were at that level, but the numbers suggest it was low.

It should also be noted that an earlier study involving 52 accomplished pianists found no effect of WMC on sight-reading ability (but did find a related effect: the ability to tap two fingers rapidly in alternation and to press a computer key quickly in response to visual and acoustic cues was unrelated to practice but correlated positively with good sight-readers).

Nevertheless, the findings are interesting, and do agree with what I imagine is the ‘commonsense’ view: yes, becoming an expert is all about the hours of effective practice you put in, but there are intellectual qualities that also matter. The question is: do they matter once you’ve put in the requisite hours of good practice?

Some years ago I wrote an article discussing the fact that the so-called Mozart effect has proved very hard to replicate since its ‘discovery’ in 1993, but now we have what is regarded as a definitive review, analyzing the entirety of the scientific record on the topic (including a number of unpublished academic theses), and the finding is very clear: there is little support for the view that listening to Mozart improves cognitive (specifically spatial) abilities. First of all, in those studies showing an effect, it was very small. The size of the effect of the specific Mozart sonata used in the original study (Sonata KV 448) compared to no stimulus was similar in size to the effect of any music compared to no stimulus. There was a small significant effect for the Mozart sonata when directly compared to other music, which probably reflects the fact that the types of music used in different studies varied widely. Some types of music are doubtless less arousing than others.
There was also a large difference in the results from laboratories affiliated to Rauscher (the original researcher) or Rideout compared to other laboratories. Rauscher and Shaw 1998 did in fact emphasize that the effect required exact replication of their original study design.
I have to say that if this (small and very specific) effect depends so heavily on getting the procedural details exactly right, it’s of little practical use. I think the main lesson we can learn from all this is that your emotional state affects cognition (a well-established effect), and that you may find some types of music are best for ‘getting you in the mood’ for mental work.

And in another pilot study, people deprived of speech following a stroke were taught to sing words instead of speaking them in a technique known as 'melodic intonation therapy'. Brain scans also showed functional and structural changes in the undamaged hemisphere after they had received the therapy. Doctors are now testing the therapy in 30 stroke patients to assess how many people who lose their speech after a stroke would benefit.

The findings were reported at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Diego.

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Music lessons grow brain

A number of studies have shown that adult musicians have different brains to adult non-musicians, but they haven’t answered the question of whether the brain differences are innate or developed through practice. A new study does just that. The study scanned the brains of 31 musically untrained six-year-olds, of whom 15 then received weekly keyboard lessons for 15 months. Brain scans taken at the end of that period revealed that auditory and motor areas of the brain linked respectively with hearing and dexterity grew larger only in the trainee musicians. The musicians also outperformed the others at specific tasks related to manual dexterity and discrimination of sounds.

Hyde, K.L. et al. 2009. Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain Development. Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (10), 3019–3025.

Time invested in practicing pays off for young musicians

A study involving 41 eight- to eleven-year-olds who had studied either piano or a string instrument for a minimum of three years and 18 children who had no instrumental training, although they had the same amount of time in general music classes at school, has found that the musicians were not only better at tasks of auditory discrimination and finger dexterity, but also had superior verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning skills. Moreover, the longer and more intensely the child had studied the instrument, the better they scored on these tests.

Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Norton, A. & Schlaug, G. 2008. Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning. PLoS ONE 3(10): e3566. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003566

Full text available at

Strong links between arts education and cognitive development

The Dana Consortium study, a 3 year study by cognitive neuroscientists from seven universities, has been investigating the effects of music, dance, and drama education on other types of learning. The researchers have identified eight key points:

  • An interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.
  • Genetic studies have begun to yield candidate genes that may help explain individual differences in interest in the arts.
  • Specific links exist between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory; these links extend beyond the domain of music training.
  • In children, there appear to be specific links between the practice of music and skills in geometrical representation, though not in other forms of numerical representation.
  • Correlations exist between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning. One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway.
  • Training in acting appears to lead to memory improvement through the learning of general skills for manipulating semantic information.
  • Adult self-reported interest in aesthetics is related to a temperamental factor of openness, which in turn is influenced by dopamine-related genes.
  • Learning to dance by effective observation is closely related to learning by physical practice, both in the level of achievement and also the neural substrates that support the organization of complex actions. Effective observational learning may transfer to other cognitive skills.

You can download the complete report at

Why music training helps language

Several studies have come out in recent years suggesting that giving children music training can improve their language skills. A new study supports these findings by showing how. The latest study shows that music triggers changes in the brain stem, a very early stage in the processing pathway for both music and language. It has previously been thought that the automatic processing occurring at this level was not particularly malleable, and the strength of neuron connections there was fixed.

And in another study, researchers have found evidence for more commonality in the brain networks involved in music and language. One network, based in the temporal lobes, helps us memorize information in both language and music— for example, words and meanings in language and familiar melodies in music. The other network, based in the frontal lobes, helps us unconsciously learn and use the rules that underlie both language and music, such as the rules of syntax in sentences, and the rules of harmony in music.

Musacchia, G., Sams, M., Skoe, E. & Kraus, N. 2007. Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 104, 15894-15898.

Miranda, R.A. & Ullman, M.T. 2007. Double dissociation between rules and memory in music: An event-related potential study. NeuroImage, 38 (2), 331-345. (1st) (2nd)

Early music training 'tunes' auditory system

Mandarin is a tonal language, that is, the pitch pattern is as important as the sound of the syllables in determining the meaning of a word. In a small study, a Mandarin word was presented to 20 adults as they watched a movie. All were native English speakers with no knowledge of Mandarin, but half had at least six years of musical instrument training starting before the age of 12, while half had minimal or no musical training. As the subjects watched the movie, the researchers measured the accuracy of their brainstem ability to track three differently pitched "mi" sounds. Those who were musically trained were far better at tracking the three different tones than the non-musicians. The study is the first to provide concrete evidence that playing a musical instrument significantly enhances the brainstem's sensitivity to speech sounds, and supports the view that experience with music at a young age can "fine-tune" the brain's auditory system. The findings are in line with previous studies suggesting that musical experience can improve one's ability to learn tone languages in adulthood, and are also consistent with studies revealing anomalies in brainstem sound encoding in some children with learning disabilities which can be improved by auditory training. The findings are also noteworthy for implicating the brainstem in processing that has been thought of as exclusively involving the cortex.

Wong, P.C.M., Skoe, E., Russo, N.M., Dees, T. & Kraus, N. 2007. Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns. Nature Neuroscience, 10, 420-422.

Evidence musical training affects brain development

A study that examined 12 young children (4—6 year olds) over the course of a year found measurable cognitive differences in those taking Suzuki music lessons compared to those having no musical training outside school. The Suzuki children not only showed greater improvement over the year in melody, harmony and rhythm processing but also in general memory skills such as literacy, verbal memory, visuospatial processing, mathematics and IQ, suggesting that musical training is having an effect on how the brain gets wired for general cognitive functioning related to memory and attention. Brain activity showed greater development consistent with establishing a neural network associated with sound categorization and/or involuntary attention.

Fujioka, T., Ross, B., Kakigi, R., Pantev, C. & Trainor, L.J. 2006. One year of musical training affects development of auditory cortical-evoked fields in young children. Brain, 129, 2593-2608.

Babies detect unfamiliar music rhythms easier than adults

According to a recent study, six-month-old babies can detect subtle variations in the complex rhythm patterns of Balkan folkdance tunes as easily as can adult Bulgarian and Macedonian U.S. immigrants, but other Western adults find it exceedingly difficult. A follow-up study has reported that by the time the babies are a year old, their performance more closely resembles adults. However, brief exposure to foreign music still enables 12-month-olds, but not adults, to perceive rhythmic distinctions in foreign musical contexts.

Hannon, E.E. & Trehub, S.E. 2005. Tuning in to musical rhythms: Infants learn more readily than adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102 (35), 12639-12643. Published online before print August 16, 2005.

Hannon, E.E. & Trehub, S.E. 2005. Metrical Categories in Infancy and Adulthood. Psychological Science, 16(1), 48-55.


Playing music helps the understanding of language

A study involving adult musicians and non-musicians matched by age, sex, general language ability and intelligence found that musicians could make the rapid auditory distinctions necessary to distinguish similar word syllables (like "da" and "ba") more accurately and quickly than non-musicians. This is the first study to demonstrate that musical training improves how the brain processes the spoken word. The researchers suggest the finding could lead to improving the reading ability of children who have dyslexia and other reading problems.

Gabrieli, J. et al. 2005. Presented at the 18th Annual U.S. Psychiatric & Mental Health Congress in Las Vegas, NV.

Early music instruction raises child’s IQ

A new study confirms earlier research supporting the benefits of early music instruction. The study involved 144 children, 6 years old at the start of the study. They were given free weekly voice or piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Another group of 6-year-olds was given free training in weekly drama classes, while a fourth group received no extra classes during the study period. Before any classes were given, all the children were tested using the full Weschler intelligence test. At the end of the school year (their first school year), the children were retested. All had an IQ increase of at least 4.3 points on average (a consequence of going to school). Children who took drama lessons scored no higher than those who had no extra lessons, but those who took music lessons scored on average 2.7 points higher than the children who did not take music lessons. Those in the drama group did however show substantial improvement in adaptive social behavior.

Schellenberg, E.G. 2004. Music Lessons Enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15 (8), 511-514.


Music instruction aids verbal memory

Research has shown that the region of the brain involved in verbal memory is larger in adult musicians than in those who are not musicians. Now a new study finds that children with music training had significantly better verbal memory than those without such training. The study involved 90 boys between six and 15. Half were in the school’s string orchestra and had one to five years training in classical music; the rest had no such training or experience. The boys with musical training scored about 20% higher on a test of their ability to learn new words and did slightly better at recalling words after a 30-minute break. No differences were found between the two groups in a test of visual memory.
A year later, the researchers retested the 45 boys who had been in the orchestra, including 9 who had dropped out, and 17 boys from the nonmusician group who had joined the orchestra. These 17, who had significantly lower verbal memory scores on the previous test, had made the greatest progress over the course of the year. Those who stayed with the orchestra also improved their scores, while those who had dropped out showed no improvement - but their performance was still better than those who had never played. The researchers suggest that music training during childhood helps reorganize/develop the left temporal lobe, facilitating the cognitive processing that occurs there, namely, verbal memory.

Ho, Y-C., Cheung, M-C. & Chan, A.S. 2003. Music Training Improves Verbal but Not Visual Memory: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Explorations in Children. Neuropsychology, 17 (3).