Several studies have shown that music training during childhood augments how the brain processes sound and can also influence the development of language skills. According to a recent study, the effects are not limited to only childhood, but music training even during teenage years can have an effect on the maturation of brain functions important for linguistic skills.
In the study, the researchers investigated the effects of musical and non-musical training programs on the processing of speech sounds in 40 high school students. The students were enrolled in a high school that required them to take either music classes or a program that trained leadership skills, self-discipline and physical fitness. Before the onset of training and during the senior year of highschool, brain responses that reflect sound processing in the brainstem were measured with EEG, along with tests for phonological awareness, memory, and rapid naming.
The brainstem is the first place where features of auditory stimuli are processed. The brainstem response, that is, the electrical impulse generated in the neurons in the brainstem in response to sound follows the characteristics of the external sound stimulus so closely, that it in a way “repeats” the sound that the individual encounters. (Fun fact: brainstem responses are so much like soundwaves that they can actually be converted to sound files that can be played through speakers. In this video you can hear playbacks of brainstem responses to sounds, including a short excerpt of “Smoke on the water.”) In fact, the accuracy of brainstem responses in the representation of sound has been used as an index of efficient auditory processing. The consistency of the brainstem response typically declines with age.
According to the results of the study, phonological processing improved in both the music training and control groups during the three years of high school, but the improvement was greater in the music training group. In addition, the brainstem responses of adolescents in the music training group maintained high response consistency, while the response consistency in the control group decreased. High response consistency indicates less variation in the brainstem response to the external auditory stimuli, and is thought to be important for learning language skills. Together, the results indicate that music training prolonged the stability of subcortical sound processing, which may have been connected to greater improvement in language skills in the music group.
All in all, the results of the study show that even though childhood is a time of heightened brain plasticity, the brain is still maturing during adolescence in terms of sound processing. Therefore, it is not “too late” to start music practice in adolescence to experience its neuroplastic effects. The researchers propose that music training during this period can in fact promote neuroplasticity, and support learning of important skills in other domains.
Written by ketki Karanam
Tierney, A. T., Krizman, J., & Kraus, N. (2015). Music training alters the course of adolescent auditory development. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 112(32), 10062–10067. doi:10.1073/pnas.1505114112