Tiger moms, take note. This month, a study of skilled musicians in the Journal of Neuroscience gives us reason to think that early music training not only makes our kids more skilled with notes and melodies, but could change the structure of their brains in a lasting way.
Researchers scanned the brains of 36 experienced musicians, half of whom had started lessons before the age of seven and half after age seven. All had logged similar hours of training and practice over their careers.
Sure enough, the brains of the early starters looked different. The corpus callosum (the tract of fibers that links the right and left hemisphere) was more highly connected in those who began before age seven. For those starting after age seven, the region looked similar to that of subjects with no musical training. The corpus callosum is responsible for integrating sensory, motor, and cognitive activity between the two sides of the brain; researchers say the complex task of learning music (which requires speed and synchronization) challenges and strengthens these crossover pathways. Early training may have a big impact because the brain is so “plastic,” or capable of change, in childhood.
— Liz Stanley
— Eva Glettner
It’s not the first time brain changes have been noted in kids with music training. In another recent study from Northwestern University, researchers measured signals from the brainstems of college students as they listened to complex sounds. The brains of the ones who had musical training in childhood had stronger responses, and their brains were better able to pick out frequencies — even if their childhood lessons lasted only a few years. The practice of learning to play music, these researchers believe, may train people to be better, stronger, and more nuanced listeners. Other studies have shown that pianists have more activity in the auditory cortex of the brain than non-musicians (the earlier in life they start training, the stronger this relationship), and that musicians have more brain matter in certain motor, hearing, and visual regions.
To clarify, playing Beethoven into your pregnant belly or classical music in the house doesn’t count — in all this research, active engagement, not passive listening, is the key. And whether or not your child is destined for Carnegie Hall, many in the field say that the benefits of music training extend to other domains. For example, since music and speech overlap (both use pitch, timing, and expression), learning music could boost language skills. Music learning also requires heavy doses of concentration and working memory skills (which allow us to hold and manipulate information in our minds); both are important in all aspects of life.
So should you rush to sign your preschooler up for music lessons? Maybe. In our house, soccer and swimming have dominated, but piano is sure to be next in the queue. Musical aptitude has both nature and nurture aspects: genes give certain kids an edge (Mozart was composing at age five, for example) and, of course, training is key. I wonder if either of my kids has a particular musical talent coded in their DNA. But even if concertos aren’t in their future, I’d love to give their growing brains this kind of special boost.