What does instrumental music study really do to the brain?
When I was in my doctoral program at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, I learned about the famous "Mozart Effect" and how that research study was discredited. Yet many still cling to the notion that listening to Mozart's music makes one smarter. In reality, Rauscher's 1993 study showed spatial abilities were temporarily increased for 15-20 minutes. But whether listening to Mozart created that phenomenon, or whether listening to works by other master composers would induce that same effect was not shown. Having studied piano seriously from an early age and other instruments in my youth as well, my curiosity naturally lead me to investigate valid research on what learning to play a musical instrument really does to the brain. I knew its obvious effects for myself and others were positive and far-reaching, but, being a researcher, I wanted to know what science had to say about its benefits, if any. So, I began my quest to find out. I looked into published neuroscience research studies for answers to my question: What does instrumental music study really do to the brain? Here is what I found...
Students involved in instrumental music study before age seven have remarkably high brain plasticity with significant benefits that extend throughout their lives. Those who start music study early on reap the most effective and long lasting benefits. Age four is the most advantageous age to begin formal music lessons. By age seven, the brain loses some of the plasticity that makes young children remarkable learners. That 'sensitive period' of learning in which students are capable of absorbing all kinds of information ends at age 7. Hearing peaks at that age, then slowly declines with time. Taking advantage of the almost magical 'sensitive period' for learning is definitely the way to go for acquiring music, language, and other important skills.
Now let's explore some fun findings on the effects of instrumental music study on the brain. Most related research studies involved comparing musicians' brains to non-musicians' brains or music students to non-music students. Most subjects played piano or violin at varying skill levels in a wide spectrum encompassing both beginners and professionals. In one study, neuroscientists discovered that male musicians had 5% larger brains than male non-musicians! In other studies, greater volume was specifically detected and measured in the cerebellum, planum temporale, corpus callosum, motor cortex, gray matter, and white matter of musicians compared to non-musicians. Aside from the structural variances manifested in musicians' brains, the functional benefits uncovered included increased brain plasticity, better white matter connectivity, faster cortical thickness maturation, and less cerebral cortex thinning. But the revealed differences between musician and non-musician brains didn't stop there. Here is the lengthy list complied of cognitive gains researchers found musicians had over non-musicians. Musicians showed improved
• Executive Functioning
• Problem Solving
• Cognitive Development
• Emotional Regulation
• Brain Health
• Spatial Abilities
• Phonemic Awareness
• Speech Perception
• Pitch Perception
• Verbal and Non-verbal Reasoning
• Understanding of Emotion in Voices
• Listening Skills Retained Through the Aging Process
• Transfer of Information from Working Memory to Long-term Memory
• Less Right or Left Handedness
• Equal Use of Hands in Pianists
• More Than Twice Better Accuracy Distinguishing Touch and Hearing
So, the answer to my initial research question about what instrumental music study does to the brain was answered with an unforeseen avalanche of noteworthy neuroscience studies full of significant conclusions valuable for students, parents, teachers, and musicians. Albert Einstein once said: "If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music." Can anyone imagine how much smarter Einstein would have been if he had pursued music study more intensely and become a musician?
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