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From our earliest baby babble, humans work better in harmony with others. But how is the brain changed by learning music? Lawrence Parsons finds out

Only a few animals show signs of musicality. Some songbirds sing in chorus, humpback whales make sounds in a pattern, and gibbons and mice seem to have grammar-like rules for stringing their cries together. However, we humans alone have the complex brain structures that spontaneously support synchronising movement to a beat, a preference for tonal harmony, metric rhythm and the use of musical instruments.

Reports that our primate cousins produce music have little evidence to support them. In fact, music and dance are universal in humans and emerge strikingly early in life.

Babies as young as eight months show a clear preference for moving in time to a beat rather than out of synch. They show, by where they look, that they recognise and prefer tunes and harmony to random notes.

Other new studies show that the cries of young infants slides in pitch in a way that mimics the interval between two adjacent musical notes. As they mature, these cries become more intricate in number and sequence of pitch changes and develop into singing and babbling.

Surprisingly, nearly all infants have components of perfect pitch in that they can distinguish a tuneful note from higher or lower pitches. This ability weakens as we begin to speak.

Adults can often spontaneously sing a pop song from their youth at a pitch matching the original recording, showing that some absolute pitch perception is retained.

How is the brain changed by learning music? Typically, many different parts of the brain are involved in musical experiences, depending on how engaged we are. For those who go on to be trained in singing or playing a musical instrument, our hours of practice maintain dense neural connections, and adapt other brain mechanisms to support musical skills.

Researchers have not yet discovered a measure of brain structure or function that predicts whether someone will become a musical virtuoso. But, are there real benefits to learning music? Yes.

Being trained in a musical instrument as a child is connected with superior non-musical abilities later in life. For instance, it appears to produce a 20 per cent increase in verbal working memory. (Working memory allows us to keep things in mind during complex thinking and problem solving, as well as helping us to simply remember a list.)

Contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that musical training or "talent" is closely linked to mathematical ability. But musical training may permanently benefit our ability to pay attention.

The ability to focus and control ourselves is critical to becoming a skilled musical performer. A virtuoso pianist's performance is perhaps the pinnacle of the brain's achievement in terms of co-ordinated cognitive, sensory, motor and emotional activity. Even approaching these performance heights will benefit performance in other areas.

Unfortunately, about 5 per cent of us are affected by a genetic disorder called congenital amusia, which specifically impairs our ability to detect whether one note is higher or lower than another, how far apart in pitch two notes are, and our sense of rhythm. These deficiencies do not appear to respond to therapeutic training, nor have the genetic sequences involved been identified. Those of us afflicted with such defects typically do not enjoy music.

Apart from amusics, about 17 per cent of adults are "tone deaf" or unable to carry a tune. Tone deaf individuals have singing difficulties that resist remedial training.

There is no clear evidence yet that either of these groups - those with singing impairments or congenital amusia - have other associated problems.

Are there other ways in which music enhances our lives? Musical experiences affect our emotions in almost a self-medicating way, but can also provide an abstract glue connecting us to others. This is important during adolescence.

Educators are increasingly using songs to help pupils remember everything from irregular verbs to the principles of nutrition.

Some ongoing threads to watch out for are: emerging research to suggest that childhood music training could enhance hearing in older age and in noisy environments; new singing and rhythm exercises that could help individuals with dyslexia; and potential gains in cognitive, motor, and music skills from gaming-style music programs, such as Guitar Hero

Lawrence M. Parsons is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sheffield

Further reading

Brown, S., Martinez, M.J., Parsons, L.M. (2006) Music and language side by side in the brain: A PET study of generating melodies and sentences. European Journal of Neuroscience, 23, 2791-2803

Levitan, D.J. (2007) This Is Your Brain on Music. (Penguin, London)

Patel, A.D. (2007) Music, Language, and the Brain. (Oxford University Press, New York)

Sacks, O. (2007) Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. (Knopf, New York)

Wise, K.J. Sloboda, J.A. (2007). Progress in understanding "tone deafness". British Academy Review, 10, 52-54

Songs for Learning:

Overy, K. (2003) Dyslexia and Music: From Timing Deficits to Musical Intervention.

Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 999, 497-505

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