Music Training In Childhood Improves The Brain
August 23, 2012

Childhood Music Training Has Lasting Effects In The Brain

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

In 1697, William Congreve wrote, "Music has charms to sooth a savage Beast." According to a new study from Northwestern University, music has charms to improve the brain as well.

The impact of music is a hot topic in research circles, and researchers have found that a little musical training in childhood goes a long way in improving how the brain functions in adulthood, especially in areas of listening and processing sound.

The new study examines for the first time what happens after a child quits playing a musical instrument after only a few years. This is a common occurrence in childhood as their interest wanes.

Adults who as children had one to five years of musical training had enhanced brain responses to complex sounds, making them more effective at pulling out the fundamental frequency of the sound signal when compared to peers without that training.

The lowest frequency in sound, the fundamental frequency crucial for speech and music perception, allows recognition of sounds in complex and noisy auditory environments.

"Thus, musical training as children makes better listeners later in life," said Nina Kraus, the Hugh Knowles Professor of Neurobiology, Physiology and Communication Sciences at Northwestern. "Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain, the study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning."

"A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood" was published in the Aug. 22 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.

"We help address a question on every parent's mind: 'Will my child benefit if she plays music for a short while but then quits training?'" Kraus said.

Few children progress in formal music lessons past middle or high school, although many engage in group or private lessons at younger ages. But most neuroscientific research to date has been focused on the rare and exceptional music student who continues an active music practice during college, or on the even rarer adult professional musician.

"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," Kraus said.

The study methodology involved 45 adults grouped into three like age and IQ groups based on histories of musical instruction. One group had no musical instruction; another had 1 to 5 years; and the other had to 6 to 11 years. Both musically trained groups began instrumental practice around age 9 years, a common age for in-school musical instruction to begin.

The study participants were tested by measuring electrical signals from the auditory brain stem in response to eight complex sounds ranging in pitch. Because the brain signal is a faithful representation of the sound signal, researchers are able to observe how the nervous system captures key elements of the sound and how these elements might be weakened or strengthened in different people with different experiences and abilities.

As predicted, musical training during childhood led to more robust neural processing of sounds later in life.

Earlier research with highly trained musicians and early bilinguals revealed that enhanced brainstem responses to sound are associated with heightened auditory perception, executive function and auditory communication skills.

"From this earlier research, we infer that a few years of music lessons also confer advantages in how one perceives and attends to sounds in everyday communication situations, such as noisy restaurants or rides on the "L," Kraus said. "The way you hear sound today is dictated by the experiences with sound you've had up until today."

"We hope to use this new finding, in combination with past discoveries, to understand the type of education and remediation strategies, such as music classes and auditory-based training that might be most effective in combating the negative impact of poverty," she said.

By understanding the brain's capacity to change and then maintain these changes, the research can inform the development of effective and long-lasting auditory-based educational and rehabilitative programs.