Music Training Changes Brain Networks
from Brain in the News


by Ben Mauk

May 11, 2009

Music training in childhood improves related cognitive function, according to research that for the first time demonstrates brain plasticity as a result of music instruction.

The ongoing study, led by Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College, and Gottfried Schlaug, professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, shows that children who receive weekly music instruction and practice regularly perform better on sound discrimination and fine motor tasks. Furthermore, brain imaging shows changes to the networks associated with those abilities.

Previous studies had shown that the brains of adult musicians have structural and functional differences from those of non-musicians, but no study had yet examined changes in the developing brain in response to long-term music training. Winner and Schlaug’s findings are the latest from several inquiries into the benefits of arts training across various areas of cognition, including a study on attention whose results also found evidence of brain plasticity in children who received instruction.

Two recent conferences focused on the burgeoning field of “neuroeducation” and how arts education in particular might affect cognitive ability.

“There is growing evidence that the arts ... [have] a positive impact on your cognitive life,” neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga said in a taped interview shown to a group of artists, educators and scientists at the “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” educational summit May 6 in Baltimore.

Winner and Schlaug found no difference between the music and non-music groups on skills unrelated to music performance, such as language, perceptual reasoning or abstract reasoning. However, a separate study has found tight correlations between music training and mathematical reasoning, suggesting that continued longitudinal research and cooperation with educators may yet uncover definite links.

 “The interest among educators in neuroscience is enormous,” said Ken Kosik, co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We need neuroscientists in schools. Just like we have teaching hospitals, we need teaching schools.”

Playing music affects the brain

Winner and Schlaug followed 59 children ages 9 to 11, 41 of whom began receiving regular music training at the start of the study. Before training began, and then at regular intervals, the researchers tested for whether the training had affected so-called near transfer domains—skills closely related to those directly trained during music education—such as fine motor control in the fingers and music listening and discrimination skills. They also tested for any changes in far transfer domains—skills without a direct connection to music training, such as language and reasoning abilities.

The researchers found that after 15 months the instrumental students performed much better in the near transfer domains, even though both groups of students performed equally well at “baseline”—before instruction began.

In addition to the battery of cognitive tests, the researchers performed brain scans on the children using diffusion tensor imaging, which can map the brain’s connective white matter. The scans revealed strengthened connections in musically relevant auditory and motor areas of the brain among those students who had received 15 months of training, compared with the nonmusic group. These changes correlated with the children’s behavioral improvements.

The researchers found no superiority in the far transfer areas of reasoning ability, language and intelligence, although Winner did not rule out the possibility of finding evidence of far transfer as they analyze data from the remainder of the four-year study.

 “This is the first study to show brain plasticity in young children as a function of instrumental music instruction,” Schlaug said. “And this is correlated with the amount of practice.”

“It'd be difficult to find another activity that takes up so much real estate in the brain,” he added.

Attention and intelligence

Winner and Schlaug’s findings provide new evidence for training-induced structural brain plasticity in early childhood. Their results dovetail with other recent research presented at the conferences.

“Years of neuroimaging have now given us a plausible or putative mechanism by which arts training could now influence cognition, including attention and IQ,” said Michael Posner, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon. Posner spoke at the “Learning and the Brain” conference May 7 in Washington, D.C., to synthesize research in arts training with his own body of work on the brain’s attention network.

Training can strengthen regions of the brain linked to attention, self-control and general intelligence, Posner reported. He speculated that the focus-intensive tasks involved in arts learning might provide effective training for these areas.

“The basic idea of the theory is here. There are brain network associations with each specific art form,” Posner said. Music, theater and the visual arts “have quite distinct neural networks,” which respond to instruction in each individual kind of art.

“In classroom situations, children can be absorbed by practicing music,” he said. “And there are consequences to [the] effort that the child expends.”

Posner’s research focused on the executive attention network, which consists of several regions scattered around the brain, including the anterior cingulate gyrus and the basal ganglia, and which enables a state of alertness and the ability to focus on a task.

In children, this network is also linked to the self-regulation of impulses. Tests had previously shown that children displaying high levels of self-regulation also show greater activity in their attention network. 

Posner found that controlled training on attention-related tasks increased the effectiveness of the attention network and also improved far transfer domains. When children were given training sessions specifically designed to improve attention, “not only did attention improve, but also generalized parts of intelligence related to fluid intelligence and IQ increased,” he said.

If controlled training can increase attention and general intelligence, Posner hypothesizes, then perhaps arts training, which involves sustained focus and control and previously has been shown to change the brain, also has a far transfer effect.

“If we are able to engage children in an art form for which their brain is prepared, and they have an openness and creativity, we can train them in this and see improvement in attention, as well as intelligence and cognition in general,” he said.

Trying to explain the roots 

Another piece of the arts-language puzzle comes from a study showing that children who studied music intensively performed better on geometry tasks. Elizabeth Spelke, professor of psychology at Harvard University and leader of the study, also reported that children with music training performed better on map-reading tests than those trained in other art forms.

Spelke augmented those findings with more recent research at the May 6 summit. She reported that children as young as 4 months seem to inherently connect geometry with sound, suggested by their ability to learn to associate tones of different length with cartoon worms of corresponding size. The infants could not learn to associate the stimuli when the tones did not correspond to relative worm length.

“If an infant hears music, the melodic processing may lead to new forms of visual processing,” Spelke said. "This may form the basis for the relationship between math and music later on.”

However, like Winner and Schlaug, Spelke cautioned that her research was not the final word. The link between music training and mathematics is “a tight correlation—it holds for many variables. But it does not explain the roots.”

Winner and Schlaug’s study, meanwhile, was limited by the fact that the children receiving music instruction were self-selected, rather than randomly assigned—they were planning to study music anyway. Thus, according to Winner, the group choosing to study music may have been predisposed to improvement in sound discrimination and motor skills. Furthermore, Winner called her study “messy,” as half the participants dropped out over four years.

“Is there going to be far transfer later on or not? We don't know,” said Winner. She lamented that claims often exceed the experimental evidence from correlational studies, and so she prefers to remain cautious. “We should never assume transfer” she said. “Transfer is very difficult to demonstrate.”

Both the “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” summit and the “Learning and the Brain” conference were sponsored in part by the Dana Foundation.