Conventional wisdom says that in order to become very good at a demanding task such as playing a musical instrument, you have to start young. Indeed, several neuroimaging studies have reported that training-related changes in brain structure are most pronounced in musicians who have started early. However, is it the age at which you start learning this skill that matters, or only the fact that if you start practicing young, you spend more years practicing? Is there an optimum age when a child should start practicing an instrument to attain the biggest benefits?
Although music is present in all of our lives in many ways, very few of us become professional musicians, and even fewer become professional composers. What do we know about musical creativity? How is new music born in the human brain? A recent study bravely tackled these fundamental unanswered questions in the field of the neuroscience of music.
Evidence has accumulated during the last couple of decades that musical training shapes the brain in many ways. For instance, since playing a musical instrument requires accurate sound processing and control of movement, musicians’ brains appear to devote more resources to sound processing and motor functions and the integration of the two. Playing music from notes also requires a close interplay between visual and auditory processing. Therefore, might musical training also enhance the brain’s ability for audiovisual integration, the combining of sound and sight?
Many of us listen to music during exercise: we have a favorite playlist for running or cycling, we put on the headphones at the gym. We instinctively know that somehow music listening helps us during physical exertion. In recent years, research has accumulated on the various effects of music listening during exercise, and has revealed interesting findings on exactly why and how music helps us.
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.
Music training is associated with a wide range of changes in brain function and structure. Recent studies have shown that an early onset of music training results in more brain changes, indicating that there may be a sensitive period for music training, or an age where the brain is especially responsive. On the other hand, in terms of brain plasticity and positive effects of music training, it is never too late! Any age is the perfect age for starting a musical hobby, and studies show that during aging, music training could be a good way to combat cognitive decline.
People convey emotions in a number of ways: through facial expressions, body posture and movement, as well as through the melody of speech and tone of voice - prosody. Musical training has previously been shown to improve skills in processing musical pitch. Could these effects transfer to the realm of speech?
Developmental dyslexia is a learning disorder that causes difficulties in word recognition, reading, and spelling. It is fairly common, affecting up to 10 % of the population and often causes a great deal of distress, especially in academic settings. A recently published article reports encouraging results from a randomized controlled study showing that music training could be used to boost reading skills in children with dyslexia.
We have examined the possible evolutionary role of music before, and even posited it's similarity to other forms of communication such as speech before, but what do we know about the way music and language interact in the brain? Can music help us express ourselves (or recover lost abilities) using language? Are musicians better foreign language speakers? This post surveys current research into music and language and where there more exciting work to be done to understand this complex and illuminating interaction in the brain.
Dr. Penhune is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University in 2000, and is also an adjunct member of the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University. She is a founding member of the International Laboratory for Brain Music and Sound (BRAMS), as well as a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development (CRDH) and the Centre for Research in Behavioral Neurobiology (CSBN).
Dr Penhune has explored the neural basis of human motor or movement skill learning. Her work has taken a broad developmental perspective, including studies in children and older adults, as well as individuals with musical training and, more recently, dance training.
In our interview during this year's Sync Session at McGill, we learned how technology like the Sync Project could enable researchers like Dr Penhune to gather larger amounts of data, inside the lab and "in the wild", and bring use closer to understanding how the body's response to music could translate into specific applications for music in clinical or educational contexts.
Previous research has convincingly shown that music training results in changes in brain function as well as structure. However, as individuals differ in their learning abilities, it is unlikely that the effects of training on the brain would be identical for everyone. Therefore neuroscientific research on music-induced neuroplasticity has started focusing more on individual differences. including personality, motivation as well as other cognitive characteristics.
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. Research reveals this type of training and learning has more widespread effects on the brain than other activities.