Taking music seriously

EVANSTON, Ill. — Those ubiquitous wires connecting listeners to you-name-the-sounds from invisible MP3 players — whether of Bach, Miles Davis or, more likely today, Lady Gaga — only hint at music’s effect on the soul throughout the ages.

Now a data-driven review by Northwestern University researchers that will be published July 20 in Nature Reviews Neuroscience pulls together converging research from the scientific literature linking musical training to learning that spills over to skills including language, speech, memory, attention and even vocal emotion. The science covered comes from labs all over the world, from scientists of varying scientific philosophies, using a wide range of research methods.

The explosion of research in recent years focusing on the effects of music training on the nervous system, including the studies in the review, have strong implications for education, said Nina Kraus, lead author of the Nature perspective, the Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. http://www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu

Scientists use the term neuroplasticity to describe the brain’s ability to adapt and change as a result of training and experience over the course of a person’s life. The studies covered in the Northwestern review offer a model of neuroplasticity, Kraus said. The research strongly suggests that the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other aspects of human communication.

An active engagement with musical sounds not only enhances neuroplasticity, she said, but also enables the nervous system to provide the stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns so important to learning.

“The brain is unable to process all of the available sensory information from second to second, and thus must selectively enhance what is relevant,” Kraus said. Playing an instrument primes the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex process that may involve reading or remembering a score, timing issues and coordination with other musicians.

“A musician’s brain selectively enhances information-bearing elements in sound,” Kraus said. “In a beautiful interrelationship between sensory and cognitive processes, the nervous system makes associations between complex sounds and what they mean.” The efficient sound-to-meaning connections are important not only for music but for other aspects of communication, she said.

The Nature article reviews literature showing, for example, that musicians are more successful than non-musicians in learning to incorporate sound patterns for a new language into words. Children who are musically trained show stronger neural activation to pitch changes in speech and have a better vocabulary and reading ability than children who did not receive music training.

And musicians trained to hear sounds embedded in a rich network of melodies and harmonies are primed to understand speech in a noisy background. They exhibit both enhanced cognitive and sensory abilities that give them a distinct advantage for processing speech in challenging listening environments compared with non-musicians.

Children with learning disorders are particularly vulnerable to the deleterious effects of background noise, according to the article. “Music training seems to strengthen the same neural processes that often are deficient in individuals with developmental dyslexia or who have difficulty hearing speech in noise.”

Currently what is known about the benefits of music training on sensory processing beyond that involved in musical performance is largely derived from studying those who are fortunate enough to afford such training, Kraus said.

The research review, the Northwestern researchers conclude, argues for serious investing of resources in music training in schools accompanied with rigorous examinations of the effects of such instruction on listening, learning, memory, attention and literacy skills.

“The effect of music training suggests that, akin to physical exercise and its impact on body fitness, music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness and thus requires society to re-examine the role of music in shaping individual development, ” the researchers conclude.

“Music training for the development of auditory skills,” by Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran, will be published July 20 in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

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3 thoughts on “Taking music seriously”

  1. Music in this day and age is definitely not what it used to be. The meaning of music has been lost along the way. This I feel, is a side-effect of the way in which the millenials have influenced society (being able to say this with conviction since I myself am of the dreaded breed).

    That music can be seen as more than art, as a actual treatment comes as no surprise. Anyone who has ever been stopped dead in their tracks by a single snatch of a melody, be it from a cello, violin or piano, can have no doubt that music can have a greater effect on a person than just simply a means of entertainment.

    Just considering the immense concentration and absolute dedication that it takes to sit down and hear each note in your head, put it in its rightful place, and string hundreds of thousands of these notes together to make a hauntingly beautiful symphony makes it easy to understand why figures such as Bach and Beethoven have been immortalized in their undying works.

    Therefore it is also easy to understand that musicians tend to be better equipped for day-to-day activities such as mentally sifting through the enormous about of information taken in, memory, reading and communication. I believe their is great opportunity in brain development of young children by exposing them to stimulating music and especially in the pursuit of further knowledge through the means of musical instruments.

    Treatment of disorders such as dyslexia with music shows great promise and my only question would be why is it not used more widely in treatments? Surely if music (especially classical music) is beneficial to plants it should be to humans (a tip of the hat to Dorothy Retallack for showing young children everywhere that music really does have an effect).


  2. WSEAS Transactions in the top 20 in some areas, according to scholar.google.com

    Prof. Marios Poulos (Ionio University, Greece) sent a congratulatory email to WSEAS due to the fact that the WSEAS Transactions in Information Science ranks 15th among the 20 best “Information Science” journals:


    We are very happy for this, as well as for other WSEAS Transactions branches that rank among the scholar.google.com Top 20.



  3. You can see also “Rhythm and Music Help Math Students”
    See http://wseas-science.blogspot.com/2012/03/rhythm-and-music-help-math-students.html

    By the way, our Journal “WSEAS Transactions on Acoustics and Music”
    is Discontinued
    because most of the prospective authors prefer to publish their papers
    in “WSEAS Transactions on Signal Processing”

    Soon, we will change our web site and the web addresses of these journals will be different. It will be good then to check them via http://www.wseas.org

    Personally, I like music very much and I play several instruments

    See my execution in Cretan Lyra http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gp2ZSFavcTE
    I have given many performances with Cretan lyra in several WSEAS Conferences

    Our Society (WSEAS) pays special attention in the promotion of Acoustics and Music and we run every year our annual conference WSEAS AMTA (Acoustics and Music: Theory and Applications)

    This year we have the 13th WSEAS International Conference on
    (AMTA ’12)

    Host Organization and Sponsor: G. Enescu” University

    I am Executive Director of the WSEAS (WSEAS President is Prof. Charles Long)


    WSEAS Offices:
    Professor Charles A. Long,
    WSEAS President,
    Professor Emeritus
    University of Wisconsin,
    Stevens Point,
    Wisconsin, USA
    president@ wseas.org

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