Health and Brain Function Enhanced by Music Education

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Schools across the nation are facing severe budget cuts that force administrators to choose which programs will remain as a part of the standard curriculum. Unfortunately, many arts and music classes will be impacted as priority is generally given to the “three R’s” – reading, writing and arithmetic. However, school leaders should take into consideration the long-term benefits that music education has for children, including the ability to maintain cognitive function even into the senior years.

Music Lessons Enhance Performance on Cognitive Tests

Most recently, a preliminary study published by the American Psychological Association found that childhood music education classes “serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging,” says lead researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy PhD of the University of Kansas Medical Center. She and her colleagues recruited 70 healthy adults, aged 60 to 83, who were divided into groups based on their level of musical experience.

Those with the highest level of musical training performed the best on cognitive tests that measured visuospatial memory, naming objects and cognitive flexibility (the brain’s ability to adapt to new information). This was followed by the lower level musicians and then non-musicians, indicating a trend related to years of musical practice. "Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older," says Dr. Hanna-Pladdy.

Read: Music Education Aids Children's Speech and Language Skills

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Another recent study, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found that musicians have more grey matter in the auditory cortex of the right brain hemisphere compared to non-musicians. While much focus is often given to classical music as being most stimulating, the researchers found that listing to any music that is enjoyable has positive effects on cognition.

What is good for the brain is often good for the heart, and music is no exception. A 2008 study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that joyful music arouses emotions that have a healthy effect on blood vessel function. The good feelings caused tissue in the inner lining of the blood vessels to dilate and increased blood flow. On the other hand, when volunteers listened to music they perceived as stressful, their blood vessels narrowed, producing a potentially unhealthy response that reduces blood flow.

Read: Lower Blood Pressure with Music and Laughter

There are many studies to indicate that music can help the brain develop better in children, including improvement in language skills and the enhancement of IQ. Music may also have a positive effect on immunity.

Dr. Hanna-Pladdy says, "Based on previous research and our study results, we believe that both the years of musical participation and the age of acquisition are critical. There are crucial periods in brain plasticity that enhance learning, which may make it easier to learn a musical instrument before a certain age and thus may have a larger impact on brain development."

Journal References:
Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, Alicia MacKay. The relation between instrumental musical activity and cognitive aging.. Neuropsychology, 2011; DOI: 10.1037/a0021895
Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (2006, June 22). Music Thought To Enhance Intelligence, Mental Health And Immune System. The Neurosciences and Music II - volume 1060 of the Annals of the New York Academy of Science. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 20, 2011,
"Positive Emotions and the Endothelium: Does Joyful Music Improve Vascular Health?" Miller M, Beach V, Mangano C, Vogel RA. Oral Presentation. American Heart Association Scientific Sessions, 11/11/2008. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 20, 2011,

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