Yet More Science Backs Musical Education as a Path to Better Brains

Researchers find better executive functioning in musically-trained kids and adults.

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Jun 18 2014, 9:00am
Image: Anna Jurkovska/Shutterstock

Society ditches music education as its own peril. This is the subtext of a study released yesterday connecting increased activity in the regions of the brain connected to executive functioning, according to functional MRI scans, and the presence of early-childhood musical training. Simply: Learning music at a young age would seem to result in smarter individuals, an effect that persists well beyond childhood, according to the study.

Executive functioning is, basically, what could be considered "sharpness." Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child puts it like this: "Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways," where the air traffic control system is EF.

The new study's authors, led by Dr. Nadine Gaab of Boston Children's Hospital, note that EF is an even stronger indicator of academic success than IQ, while poor EF is an impairment commonly seen in children with ADHD and in elderly patients suffering from Alzheimer's. (Music could one day be a treatment for both.)

EF is also something that can be tracked using fMRI scans, as it's linked to increased activity in several distinct regions of the brain: the supplementary motor area, the pre-supplementary area, and the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. fMRI scans are hardly definitive or even meaningful on their own, and the subjects were all subject to batteries of other cognitive evaluations, including standard IQ tests. Additionally, the study controlled for such intervening factors as parental education, job status, and family income, all things that have their own demonstrated and potentially distorting correlations to executive functioning.

The Boston researchers compared a group of 15 musically-trained children, ages nine to 12, with a control group of 12 untrained children of the same age range. They also compared a group of 15 adult professional musicians to a control group with no musical training. (The trained children played for 5.2 years and practiced 3.7 hours per week, starting at the age of 5.9, on average.) All were tested using a variety of different tasks relating to different sorts of brain activity, while being scanned.

A and B show brain activation in musically trained and untrained children, respectively. C shows brain areas that are more active in musically trained than musically untrained children. Image: Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience, Boston Children's Hospital

Both the children and the adults with musical backgrounds did better, in general. The musically-trained kids did better, in particular, on certain tasks involving the prefrontal cortex relating to abrupt switches between mental tasks. "One possible mechanism could be that early musical training, especially in an orchestral setting because of its enhanced demands on executive functioning, trains the executive functioning network in the brain so that it matures faster, which then results in better performance," Gaab offered in an email.

The concept here is brain plasticity, or the brain's marvelous capacity to modify its functioning and even its very structure in response to external conditions. Plasticity is most pronounced during childhood, but isn't limited to it either.

So, is it too late for you as a suboptimal adult? Maybe not: "...we saw similar effects in adults," said Gaab. "However, these adults have started playing a musical instrument early in life. There is one study (not by our group) that showed that six months of individualized piano instruction improved EF abilities in elderly subjects with minimal musical experience. However, this study did not employ an active control group and effects did not survive a correction for multiple comparisons so these results should be interpreted carefully."

A final point on that subtext we opened with: There is by now a library full of research, beyond the current study, suggesting similar benefits to musical education. This is firm ground. "While many schools are cutting music programs and spending more and more time on test preparation," said Gaab, "our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future."