Music Training Changes the Brain

Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer or a mathematician - but they would recognize the brain of a professional musician without moment’s hesitation.
— Oliver Sachs, Musicophilia

While reading the headline of this post, we expect most people to go “yeah, and what doesn’t?”.  With the accumulation of findings on neuroplasticity, there seem to be weekly headlines of how things ranging from knitting to gardening can change the brain. The wide range of things that can be associated with brain plasticity is explained by the fact that learning causes plastic changes in brain function and structure (1) and thus basically any activity that requires learning can give rise to brain changes. Therefore, in addition to reports on music-training related neuroplasticity, other activities, for instance dance (2,3,) handball (4,)  and video gaming (5) have been associated with neuroplasticity. Music training requires the parallel use of a wide variety of skills, including control over movements, accurate auditory skills, attention and memory. Formal music lessons are a rigorous, often daily, exercise of these skills that typically start in early childhood and persist for years. Therefore, it may be that this type of training and learning has more widespread effects on the brain, more than other activities.

The late Oliver Sacks has written in Musicophilia (p. 94): “Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer or a mathematician - but they would recognize the brain of a professional musician without moment's hesitation.” This might sound like an overstatement, but decades of research show that the structural differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians are vast. One of the first studies comparing brain differences between musicians and non-musicians found that professional string players have a larger representation of the fingers of the left hand on the somatosensory cortex than non-musicians (6) - their brains had reserved more resources for operation of the hand that manipulates the strings. Further studies discovered similar differences in a wide range of areas: musicians have larger grey matter volume in areas related to movement control, auditory processing, memory, and attention than nonmusicians as well as a thicker corpus callosum, the nerve bundle connecting the two hemispheres (7), (for a review see 8).

... after just 6 months of music training, 8-year-olds showed enhanced reading and pitch discrimination abilities

However, just comparing brains of musicians and "non-musicians" won’t tell us whether training actually caused the differences - it could be that individuals born with thicker corpus callosums or larger representations of the fingers of the left hand end up pursuing and persevering in music studies.

Longitudinal studies with children undertaking music training suggest that training is indeed the cause for the augmentations in the brain. For instance, one of the first longitudinal studies on structural augmentation found that only 15 months of music training caused thickening of the cortex in motor and auditory areas of the brain, as well as the corpus callosum (9.) Another set of longitudinal studies (10) that looked at brain function instead of structure found that music training causes changes in how the brain processes sound: in these studies musically trained children across school ages showed an increase in the magnitude of the brain response to subtle changes in various types of sounds. In contrast, very little development was seen in the brain responses of children without musical training. There was no difference between the groups in the brain response at the onset of the training which indicates that the group differences emerged due to training.  

So, it has been pretty convincingly established that music training changes the brain in a multitude of ways. Most of these changes are directly related to the demands of music training, such as finely tuned motor and auditory skills. Could these structural and functional changes in the brain influence other types of activities as well - could music training make you good at things other than just music?

More research is needed to understand all any long-term transfers from music training but concrete benefits of music training to language are clear

Research on the transfer effects of music training has shown that musicians do indeed outperform non-trained peers in a many cognitive tasks, including traditional IQ tests (11), and attentional control (12.) However, research results vary, and for instance, there are recent studies showing no differences in IQ between trained and non-trained individuals (13.) Rather these groups vary in the executive functions that underlie performance in a number of cognitive tasks (14.) Longitudinal studies on transfer effects are scarce, and a lot of the ambiguity concerning results will be clarified by further research. Currently, the strongest evidence for transfer effects and concrete benefits of music training relates to language (15.) This is understandable, since it is unlikely that the accurate auditory skills that result from music training would only influence the processing of musical stimuli but not speech sounds. Indeed, longitudinal studies have pointed towards a causal link between training and transfer to language. For instance, a study published in 2009, found that after just 6 months of music training 8-year-olds showed enhanced reading and pitch discrimination abilities in speech when compared to peers who undertook painting classes (16). In another study, preschoolers who trained for just 10 minutes a day for 20 weeks showed greater increase in pre-reading skills than preschoolers who were randomized to a sports training group (17). Music might therefore be an enjoyable and easily implemented booster to language learning, and perhaps a way to help children at risk for language learning difficulties. Further studies will elaborate on open questions such as which aspects of music training influence linguistic skills and whether music could be used in the treatment of language difficulties.

All in all, a large body of research in the neuroscience of music testifies to the power of music training in shaping brain structure as well as in influencing development of music-related skills. Music requires a lot from the brain, and therefore the neuroplastic effects on the brain may be broader than in some other learning activities. Music training might also produce an advantage in other areas of life, with acquisition and learning of language being the strongest contestant at the moment. Longitudinal studies have shown that even just 20 weeks of music training is enough to have an impact on cognition. Typically however, the strongest effects and greatest plastic changes are related to years of disciplined practice. Many people therefore wonder, how much music training is enough? Does one have to play classical music daily and start at an early age to experience any effects? Recently, studies have started emerging in the field showing how even a small amount of informal music activities can result in brain augmentations. Check out more research and how musical play can support early development.

Written by Ketki Karanam and Marko Ahtisaari


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