A 1993 study of college students showed them performing better on spatial reasoning tests after listening to a Mozart sonata. That led to claims that listening to Mozart temporarily increases IQs — and to a raft of products purporting to provide all sorts of benefits to the brain.
In 1998, Zell Miller, then the governor of Georgia, even proposed
providing every newborn in his state with a CD of classical music.
But subsequent research has cast doubt on the claims.
Ani Patel, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University and the author of “Music, Language, and the Brain,”
says that while listening to music can be relaxing and contemplative,
the idea that simply plugging in your iPod is going to make you more
intelligent doesn’t quite hold up to scientific scrutiny.
“On the other hand,” Patel says, “there’s now a growing body of work
that suggests that actually learning to play a musical instrument does
have impacts on other abilities.” These include speech perception, the
ability to understand emotions in the voice and the ability to handle
multiple tasks simultaneously.
Patel says this is a relatively new field of scientific study.
“The whole field of music neuroscience really began to take off
around 2000,” he says. “These studies where we take people, often
children, and give them training in music and then measure how their
cognition changes and how their brain changes both in terms of its
processing [and] its structure, are very few and still just emerging.”
Patel says that music neuroscience, which draws on cognitive science,
music education and neuroscience, can help answer basic questions about
the workings of the human brain.
“How do we process sequences with complex hierarchical structure and
make sense of them?” he asks. “How do we integrate sensation and action?
How do we remember long and difficult sequences of information? These
are fundamental neuroscience questions, and music can help us answer
some of these questions, because it’s in some ways simpler than
language, but it’s still of sufficient complexity that it can address
these very deep and important aspects of human brain function.”
In addition, Patel says music neuroscience research has important
implications about the role of music in the lives of young children.
“If we know how and why music changes the brain in ways that affect
other cognitive abilities,” he says, “this could have a real impact on
the value we put on it as an activity in the schools, not to mention all
the impact it has on emotional development, emotional maturity, social
skills, stick-to-itiveness, things we typically don’t measure in school
but which are hugely important in a child’s ultimate success.”
At the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, every student receives music instruction.
“It doesn’t matter whether they have had music instruction before or not,” says Diana Lam, the head of the school.
The school, which accepts new students by lottery, is bucking a
national trend, as more and more cash-strapped school districts pare
down or eliminate music programs.
Lam says music is part of her school’s core curriculum because it
teaches students to strive for quality in all areas of their lives — and
because it gets results.
“Music addresses some of the behaviors and skills that are necessary
for academic success,” she says. “Since we started implementing El Sistema, the Venezuelan music program, as well as project-based learning, our test scores have increased dramatically.”
STRONGER EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING
But what does the latest scientific research
tell us? The question, according to neuropsychologist Nadine Gaab, is
not simply whether music instruction has beneficial effects on young
“There’s a lot of evidence,” Gaab says, “that if you play a musical
instrument, especially if you start early in life, that you have better
reading skills, better math skills, et cetera. The question is, what is
the underlying mechanism?”
At her lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, Gaab leads a team of
researchers studying children’s brain development, recently identifying
signs in the brain that might indicate dyslexia before kids learn to read. Gaab and her colleagues are also looking for connections between musical training and language development.
You can read more about this fascinating article at KQED News.
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