Music and intelligence: Will listening to music make you smarter?
Will listening to music make you smarter? Will learning to play a musical instrument make your brain grow larger than normal?
Questions like these have been popping up everywhere in recent years, and not just in scientific journals.
In recent times, the media has been fascinated by research on brain development and music, enthusiastically reporting the latest studies to the delight of parents of music-loving young children.
But all this information, and also some misinformation, has led to widespread confusion about the role of music and music training in the development of the human brain. The bottom line is this: if everything you read about studying music and brain development confuses you, you are certainly not alone.
In part, this is due to the way the media has popularized and spread the phrase “the Mozart effect” to describe any situation in which music has a positive effect on cognition or behavior.
In fact, the Mozart effect refers specifically to a 1993 research finding by Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw, and Katherine Ky and published in the prestigious journal Nature. The scientists found that 36 college students who listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata performed better on a subsequent spatio-temporal task than after listening to relaxation or silence instructions.
A delighted medium reported this interesting research as “Mozart makes you smarter”, a huge oversimplification of the original results.
As Rauscher explains in a later article, the Mozart effect was studied only in adults, lasted only a few minutes, and was found only for temporal spatial reasoning. However, the finding has launched an industry that includes books, CDs and websites that claim that listening to classical music can make children smarter.
Scientific controversy, not to mention popular confusion, surrounding the Mozart effect, has led to corresponding perplexity for parents. They wonder, “Should my kids even care about music education?”
In fact, the answer to this question remains a resounding yes, as numerous research studies show that studying music contributes unequivocally to the positive development of the human brain. Since then, other researchers have replicated the original 1993 finding that listening to Mozart improves spatial reasoning. And further research by Rauscher and colleagues in 1994 showed that after eight months of keyboard lessons, preschoolers demonstrated a 46% increase in their spatial reasoning IQ, an important skill for certain types of mathematical reasoning. .
In particular, it is the training of ancient music that seems to further strengthen the connections between brain neurons and perhaps even lead to the establishment of new pathways. But research shows that music training also has a more than casual relationship with the long-term development of specific parts of the brain.
In 1994, Discover magazine published an article discussing the research of Gottfried Schlaug, Herman Steinmetz, and their colleagues at the University of Dusseldorf. The group compared magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brains of 27 classically trained right-handed male pianists or string players with those of 27 non-musicians right-handed men.
Interestingly, they found that in musicians’ planum temporale, a brain structure associated with auditory processing, it was larger in the left hemisphere and smaller in the right than in non-musicians. The musicians also had a thicker nerve fiber tract between the hemisphere. The differences were especially notable among musicians who began training before the age of seven.
According to Shlaug, the study of music also promotes the growth of the corpus callosum, a kind of bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain. He found that among musicians who began their training before the age of seven, the corpus callosum is 10-15% thicker than in non-musicians.
At the time, Schlaug and other researchers speculated that a larger corpus callosum could improve motor control by speeding up communication between the hemispheres.
Since then, a study by Dartmouth music psychologist Petr Janata, published by Science in 2002, has confirmed that music causes increased connectivity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain and between the areas responsible for emotion and memory, which almost any other stimulus.
Janata led a team of scientists who reported that some areas of the brain are 5% larger in expert musicians than in people with little or no musical training, and that the auditory cortex in professional musicians is 130% denser than in non-musicians. In fact, among musicians who began their musical studies in early childhood, the corpus callosum, a ten-centimeter bundle of nerve fibers that connects the left and right sides of the brain, can be up to 15% larger.
While it is now clear from research studies that brain region connectivity and some types of spatial reasoning functionality improve with music training, there is growing evidence that detailed and skilled motor movements also improve.
The corpus callosum in musicians appears to be essential for tasks such as finger coordination. Like the biceps of a weightlifter, this part of the brain enlarges to accommodate the increased work assigned to it.
In a study by Dr. Timo Krings and published in Neuroscience Letters in 2000, pianists and non-musicians of the same age and gender were required to perform complex sequences of finger movements. The non-musicians were able to do the movements as correctly as the pianists, but less activity was detected in the pianists’ brains. The scientists concluded that compared to non-musicians, pianists’ brains are more efficient at performing skillful movements.
The study of music definitely affects the human brain and its development in a staggering number of ways. But what to do with all the research, especially in terms of deciding the best course of music study or appreciation for yourself or your offspring?
A 2000 article by NM Weinberger in MuSICA Research Notes makes the following excellent point: Although the Mozart effect may not live up to the unjustified hopes of the public, it has brought widespread interest in music research to the public. And listening to ten minutes of Mozart could get someone interested in listening to more unfamiliar music, opening up new perspectives.
Regardless of the hype surrounding the Mozart effect, the general academic evidence for the study of music as a tool to aid brain development is compelling.
At the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, Dr. Frank Wilson says his research shows that instrumental practice improves coordination, concentration, and memory, and also improves sight and hearing. His studies have shown that participation in music connects and develops the brain’s motor systems, refining the entire neurological system in ways that no other activity can perform. Dr. Wilson even goes so far as to say that he believes that music instruction is really “necessary” for total brain development.
So the bottom line is this: studying and practicing music probably helps brain development in several important ways. And after all, if you love music, there is nothing to lose by trying, and everything to gain!