Music & The Brain

Music making and the brain across the life span

I love a good summary paper. You know the kind; one where someone takes the trouble to summarise the literature in an area and present the current theories and evidence in an engaging and thorough way.

Not many authors produce them nowadays; I can see why, as they will quickly date and it is often hard to get journals to publish papers that contain no unique data. But they are so very valuable! They are wonderful for teaching as they provide a goldmine of references and when they are fresh and new they provide a constructive overview of how a field of study is developing.

And so my heart was lifted when I came across a new summary paper of the effect of music making on the brain across the lifespan written by Catherine Wan and Gottfried Schlaug. Gottfried has featured many times in this blog as he is one of the eminent scientists in the field of music psychology.

He has a productive lab in Boston that, over the years, has produced many of the key findings regarding the effect of music on the brain. Gottfried summarised many of these in his recent ICMPC address, which you can read about here.

Anyway; on we go to the current paper of interest. This paper is a brilliantly written summary of research that has examined how music making changes brains.

Brain plasticity is at the heart of the work carried out at Gottfried’s lab. We know, thanks to him and his team, that exposure to music can change the way the brain operates at many different stages of life. It can affect children’s brains as they grow and it can help to restore speech function to those who have been badly affected by strokes and other brain injuries (see his keynote at ICMPC link above for more details).

This paper is all about this work and focuses on how music making, which places strong demands on the nervous system as we learn associations between visual symbols (notes), sounds and motor actions, leads to a growth in the neural associations between different sensory and motor areas of the brain. Basically, it is a story about how learning about music can positively affect both the structure and function of many areas within the brain.

The first section discusses findings relating to brain and behaviour effects of music making in children. This is the largest part of the paper. I can only hope that somebody currently in charge of cutting back aspects of funding from education reads this summary, as there can be no doubt that music making is beneficial for a young mind.

The authors first summarise studies relating to cross sectional studies in adult non-musicians and musicians, which show anatomical and functional brain differences between them including but not limited to larger anterior corpus callosum, increased size of primary motor cortex, asymmetry in secondary auditory cortex , differences in Brocas and inferior frontal cortex and alterations to the arcuate fasciculus (AF), a key white matter pathway between the temporal and frontal regions of the brain. Check out the paper for amazing new images of the AF (Fgure 4 in particular).

They then compare these results to the more recent longitudinal studies of children’s brains as they learn an instrument. The key finding is that the longitudinal studies show similar changes to the children’s brains as compared with the findings of differences between adult musicians and non-musicians. So it seems it is more certain than ever that the differences we see in musicians brains are not pre-existing but result from their training.

What does this mean for children’s everyday behaviour? The authors suggest the strongest evidence lies in positive near-transfer effects, so better fine motor control, auditory perception, pitch and rhythm discrimination and melodic contour perception.

There are also many reports of positive far-transfer effect, which are those that seem to draw most interest; spatial, verbal, mathematical and general IQ improvements. The authors suggest caution with the spatial and maths results, as the data is at best mixed and at worst completely inconsistent. More convincing is the case for an improvement in verbal abilities (including verbal recall and reading skills) as well as general IQ (thanks to Glenn Schellenberg’s work )

A shorter secondary section of the paper is devoted to showing that brain plasticity is possible in adulthood too – amazingly, small impressions of changes in brain function are possible to see in adults even with only 2 weeks of training (Lappe and colleagues, 2008).

Studies in this area are unfortunately few so far, but there are glimpses of the benefits of lifelong training in music. And finally there is a section where the authors hypothesize that music making may help slow cognitive decline in the elderly – a fascinating area of study. The authors are careful to stress that music making is no miracle cure for aging – brain plasticity naturally declines as we age as brain tissue degenerates. However, studies have shown that older musicians have less age-related reductions in total brain volumes compared to non-musicians. And it is widely accepted that cognitive training/activities can slow, arrest or even reverse age-related cognitive decline.

The authors suggest that music making may be particularly useful as a training aid for older adults, because it engages so many different areas of the brain and encourages activity in crucial interactive, communicative brain networks.

So in conclusion, this is a super summary of the literature on brain plasticity and music making. I can highly recommend it to anyone and everyone in the field. Pass it on!

Paper: Wan & Schlaug (2010). Making Music as a Tool for promoting Brain Plasticity across the Life Span. The Neuroscientist, 16 (5), 566-577. Many thanks go to Catherine Wan for supplying me with a copy of the paper.

Useful links: Podcast featuring Gottried Schlaug called ‘Making Music Changes Brains’: