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Music Offers Brainy Benefits for Kids and Adults

music benefits

Music has been credited with many powers, from soothing a savage breast to improving certain brain processes. In the latter category, the authors of a new study report that musical training has a positive effect on an important brain activity called executive functions.

Executive functions are mental processes that allow individuals to perform “executive” type decisions, such as planning, paying attention to and remembering details, managing space and time, organizing, strategizing, and problem solving. People who have difficulty with executive function also may experience a weak working memory.

These cognitive skills are naturally important for everyone and should be learned at an early age. That’s where music comes in.

In the new controlled study, the researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine a possible biological relationship between musical training at an early age and improved executive functioning in both kids and adults. Use of fMRI allows researchers to view and document changes in brain activity in areas associated with this function.

Two experiments were performed: one involved 30 adults (15 with and 15 without musical training) and the other included 27 children ages 9 to 12 years (15 with and 12 without musical training). The trained adults were all music professionals while the musically trained children had had private music lessons for at least two years.

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Overall, the researchers found the following:

  • Adult musicians had better working memory, verbal fluency, and cognitive flexibility than their nonmusical peers
  • Musically trained children showed better verbal fluency, processing speed, and enhanced activity in their brain in areas associated with executive functions when they were asked to switch tasks (task switching)

The investigators concluded that “our results support the working hypothesis that executive functioning may be one of the mechanisms mediating the often reported link between musical training and heightened academic skills, as EF skills and academic skills are highly correlated.” Given that music and musical training is often slashed from school curricula because of budget considerations, it’s important to rethink these actions and find ways to incorporate music into children’s lives.

According to Nadine Gaab, PhD, of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s and the study’s senior investigator, “Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications.” The authors also noted that their findings could be important for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the elderly, two groups that often have difficulty with executive functioning.

Previous research has shown that music has the power to do even more.

  • In a study conducted at the University of Liverpool, researchers found that even short exposure to musical training in otherwise nonmusical individuals enhanced blood flow to the left side of the brain. This suggests their brains worked in the same way a musician’s brain would work (i.e., improved functioning)
  • A study from Concordia University found that children who received musical training before they were 7 years old showed a significant effect on brain development, specifically in the areas involved in planning and executing movements
  • A study published in Neuropsychology reported that music lessons during childhood can keep a person’s mind sharper as they grow older

Music has been called a universal language and its rhythms are far-reaching. This powerful medium can provide countless benefits on many levels, including enhancement of brain function for kids and adults.

British Psychological Society. How musical training affects our brains. 2014 May 8
Hanna-Pladdy B, MacKay A. The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging. Neuropsychology 2011 May; 25(3): 378-86
Steele CJ et al. Early musical training and white matter plasticity in the corpus callosum: evidence for a sensitive period. Journal of Neuroscience 2013; 33(3): 1282
Zuk J et al. Behavioral and neural correlates of executive functioning in musicians and non-musicians. PLoS ONE 2014; 9(6): e99868

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