Music and the Mind

As I am sitting down to write this blog entry, my younger daughter is practicing her piano lessons for the week. She will put in twenty minutes of practice, paying extra attention to counting (her teacher really likes her students to count). In the short term, she will progress to being able to play more complicated pieces, to play music (rather than just notes) and our living room will be filled with the sounds of elementary piano music.

Hearing our children play music is an undeniably wonderful thing.

But in the long term, there is increasing evidence that the time she spends on music instruction may have long lasting and beneficial effects on cognitive function, social behavior, and academic performance. That seems to be the conclusion of much of the contemporary research on the effects of music on the brain and mind.

Full disclosure, although I study cognition and thinking, this is not my area of expertise. I’m interested as a psychologist, but also as a parent and music lover. So I’m not endorsing anything in my professional capacity, I just find this work really fascinating.

The study music and the mind had a dubious moment of fame in the 1990s, and everyone has heard of the “mozart effect”. The idea, which was wildly over interpreted by many, was that listening to music (specifically to the music of Mozart) will “make you smarter”. Of course, the original paper did not make this claim, and the authors were clear that these were short term effects of listening to a piece of music and subsequent  performance on spatial reasoning tasks. But  the public was so enamored by this finding that a whole industry was spawned (“Baby Einstein” DVDs) and the governor of the state of Georgia actually set aside money to make sure that every baby that was born in that state was given a classical music CD.

Although the idea that passive listening to classical music would make babies and kids more intelligent and more creative is erroneous, interest in music and the mind has not disappeared, and a few weeks ago, I came across several popular science articles that suggest a renewed interest in the topic. And this time, the claims are more credible and the possible benefits much more long lasting.

But what effects does music–either listening to, or playing–have on the mind?

There is robust evidence from Glenn Schellenberg’s lab at the University of Toronto that music instruction is directly linked to higher IQ scores. A paper from 2005 summarized this work, and found that music instruction was correlated with improvements in spatial, mathematical, and verbal tasks. He writes , “Does music make you smarter? The answer is a qualified yes.” The reasoning is that music instruction seems to have these effects because it is school-like, requires attention, is enjoyable, and engages many areas of the brain. Learning about music also requires and encourages abstract thought.  The suggestion here is that a person can identify the same tune even if played in a different tempo, instrument, or key because that they have processed it as an abstraction. The  “qualified yes” is that it is not clear if music lessons are the only way to get this improvement and Schellenberg suggests that other kinds of private lessons (drama, for example) might show similar cognitive  benefits.

But other research has begun to track the academic performance and brain function of students who engage in music instruction. A longitudinal study being run by Nina Kraus at Northwestern University is looking carefully at long term benefits of school-based music curricula (as opposed to private lessons as in the Schellenberg study). In essence, music instruction in school seems to improve children’s communication skills, attention, and memory. Kraus’s team is also examining the neural correlates to these benefits and even finds that the auditory processing advantages and neural changes that come from music instruction are robust into adulthood. In other words, if there are cognitive and perceptual enhancements from studying music as a child, these changes may persist long after music instruction is over.

Finally, a recent editorial in the New York Times asked “Is Music the Key to Success?” The author notes that many very successful people benefited from extensive music training.  Allen Greenspan, Stephen Spielberg, Larry Page, Paul Allen, Condoleezza Rice, and others were (and are) trained musicians. This is not to say that piano lessons at age 6 = future Secretary of State, and of course the Op Ed  asks “Will your school music program turn your kid into a Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft (guitar)? Or a Woody Allen (clarinet)? Probably not.” But the correlations are there, and the evidence (including the more rigorous studies above) is compelling.

The message is: Learn to play music,  or have your children learn an instrument.

Obviously, there is no evidence that instruction in music will produce negative effects. None. So why do schools and school boards sometimes look cutting to music and arts programs as a way to make ends meet? Just this year, the Toronto school board decided (controversially) to make some severe cuts to its music program, and this problem is province wide (though thankfully, not our kids’ public elementary school…we have a great music program).  And this problem is not unique to Ontario, of course. California has seen its school music program decimated.

This is not a good idea.

My point is, there is ample evidence—even when viewed with a skeptical eye—that music instruction has tangible benefits and there is literally no downside. If anything, I’d argue for more music instruction in schools. We’ll likely see wide-ranging cognitive and academic benefits as a result. But if nothing else, we’ll maybe create more musicians.

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