Music hits all the right notes

25th November 2011 at 00:00
Dr Ellie Dommett explains how it affects young people's brains, boosting language skills and even intelligence

Even those of us who are not blessed with musical talent often enjoy listening to music. But what exactly is its impact on us? Certainly, we all know that music is a powerful modulator of emotion and motivation, but can it do more than make you cry or run faster on the treadmill?

The Government-backed review of music education in England this year suggested that music can be used to close the attainment gap. It cited impressive projects such as In Harmony, a community programme for classical music based on the Venezuelan programme El Sistema.

And evidence from neuropsychology shows that music can have quite remarkable effects on the brain. One of the most amazing features of the brain is its plasticity - the ability to reorganise connections and effectively learn information as pathways connecting billions of brain cells grow weaker or stronger according to need. This plasticity is not limited to a critical period, but is possible throughout life and is clearly affected when different skills are learnt.

Music can be considered a super-skill because its complexity places a unique demand on the brain to link perception and action. Playing a musical instrument requires many skills, not least translating visual symbols into sequences of actions with auditory feedback. It is unsurprising, then, that this super-skill has quite an impact on the brain. For example, neuroscientists have found structural changes in the brains of musicians in areas associated with hearing and movement.

Research has also consistently shown that music involves the activation of areas linked to language, and it is thought that language abilities correlate with musical abilities. The exact reasons are not clear, but it is probable that musical training helps the development of parts of the brain involved in hearing and so aids development of language.

However, neuropsychologists may only be at the tip of iceberg in terms of music's influence. Recent studies have shown music can have an impact on a number of skills, with implications for all areas of the curriculum. For example, work by a Canadian research group led by Dr Sylvain Moreno found that short-term musical training improved measures of intelligence and decision-making.

Dr Moreno and his colleagues worked with two groups of young children. One group underwent an intense computerised training programme in music lasting 40 hours, which included work on rhythm, pitch, melody and voice. A second, control group experienced a similar training programme, but this time the focus was on visual art rather than music. They found that only the children who had done the musical training showed improved verbal intelligence and decision-making.

Music has been linked to measures like this before, but what makes this study particularly interesting is that it was able to show musical training could actually lead to these improvements. This was possible because the researchers used a control group and worked with children who were not musicians. Much of the earlier research looked at existing musicians and, therefore, it was impossible to tell if their IQ, for example, was higher because of their music abilities or whether children with a higher IQ elect to study music.

Of course, musical training is one thing - but does this actually mean playing an instrument? While much research has focused on producing music, the importance of listening to music should not be underestimated, as this still involves a number of skills - such as pattern identification - that could influence plasticity in the brain.

Neuroscience can support the importance of music as an educational focus and the research described here illustrates the need for carefully controlled studies. Exactly how such research shifts to the classroom is unclear, but recognising the potential of music to change the brain in ways that improve general abilities might provide the space to develop teaching strategies.

Dr Ellie Dommett is a lecturer at the Open University and co-author of the 'Learning and the Brain Pocketbook'.

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