Musical Training Makes You Smarter

Mozart has not only enthralled countless music lovers through the ages but also intrigued neuroscientists. In fact, his genre of music has spawned a whole body of research into the effect of classical music on cognitive development in kids.

The “Mozart Effect” is the idea that children and babies (even unborn) become more intelligent if they are fed on a dose of the symphonies, operas, and concertos created by this musical legend. Disappointingly, the researchers since have established that listening to Mozart or any other piece of classical music does not lead to long-term cognitive benefits. But in the process, they have also discovered that serious and sustained musical training does have a positive effect on some aspects of cognitive development.

Music training and the brain

There have been several studies to find an association, if any, between music and cognitive capabilities.

The Mozart Effect was, in effect, nullified when a 2005 study found that listening to music improved the cognitive performance of the listeners only for a short period of time. This development is attributed to the general mood-enhancing effect of music. After this finding, many of the studies began to focus on the short- and long-term effects of taking music lessons and making music on specific cognitive abilities like general intelligence, memory, language, and visual-spatial processing.

Multiple studies suggest that learning to play a musical instrument early in childhood induces long-term intellectual benefits that stay well into adulthood. One recent study demonstrated that children aged around four-and-a-half who learned music for about a year displayed improved cognitive functioning than their untrained peers.

Musical training affects the oscillatory connections in the brain related to executive functions like reasoning, switching between multiple tasks, forming working memory, planning and executing, and problem solving. Children who undergo musical training for a sustained length of time tend to have superior cognitive abilities in these specific domains. Musical children also tend to learn and perform better in subjects like languages and mathematics than their non-musical peers.

These findings do not come as a surprise. Sustained and intense musical training demands that individuals focus intently on dynamic sensory (auditory and visual) and motor signals. These are high-level cognitive abilities that go on to affect learning and performance in non-musical spheres as well.

It is also believed that intense musical training enhances the ability of the practitioner to string together abstract concepts and think relationally to make sense of these. This is why some scientists believe that musical training improves mathematical skills and non-verbal IQ.

Language skills

Very recently, researchers have shown that children who undertook long-term training in music exhibited enhanced academic development compared to the children in the same age group who did not receive this training. More specifically, this effect was seen mostly in the aspect of language skills. Children who trained in music in their early years exhibited enhanced verbal memory and increased reading skills in comparison to those who had never received any musical training. These skills seemed to sharpen with every extra year of training.

Learning a language and learning and/or making music engage similar areas of the brain and demand identical cognitive and auditory processing abilities. For example, to understand a spoken language, the listener needs to be able to correctly discriminate between words, understand how they sound different because certain vowels and consonants are present, and the process the sequencing of syllables and tones.

Musical training is also believed to improve reading skills in serious practitioners. Learning music enhances auditory working memory, phonological awareness, and the ability to differentiate between sounds, identify patterns, and recognize rhythm and pitch. It seems that these abilities also help individuals develop reading and pronunciation skills. Children who receive musical training early and continue to train show a greater grasp of second language acquisition skills than their non-musical peers.

Improved sensory processing

The benefits of early music training have also been documented in studies aimed to determine the effect of music on sensory processing capabilities. According to these findings, individuals who undertook sustained musical training before the age of seven showed greater neural plasticity in their brains than those who undertook training after this age. Specifically, the former group showed improved sensory motor responses, such as exhibiting coordinated reflex actions and having a sense of posture.

Another study suggests that early music training enhances the plasticity of white matter in the corpus callosum. This structural peculiarity results in enhanced connectivity between the sensory and motor areas of the brain.

An article published last year nails down the cause behind this association and indicates that there is a sensitive period during the developmental phase of a person when this effect is strongest. The right ventral pre-motor cortex is involved in the processing and integration of sensory (auditory) and motor information. And according to this study, musicians who began training early showed greater thickness (increased white and gray matter) in this region of their brains. This region exhibits peak maturational transformation between the ages of six and nine years. The effect of musical training on the plasticity in this region is therefore greatest just before maturation. So it is no surprise that highly-skilled musicians, who began practicing before the age of seven, show enhanced cognitive development than musicians who train later.

The above findings on the positive association between musical training and cognitive abilities hold significance not only for parents and neuroscientists but also for those who work in the education sphere. For instance, educationists entrusted with policy making should think twice before chopping the budget for arts and music training in schools. These findings should also prompt scientists, psychologists, and educational counselors to ponder over the efficacy of recommending musical training to children with learning disabilities.

It is evident that musical training improves cognitive abilities in children. The earlier they begin to strum the guitar and tinkle the piano, the brighter are their chances of performing in school. So continue encouraging your kid to play the banjo even if he is out of tune. You will be doing her a world of good.


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Image via Andresr / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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