A new Northwestern University study shows that a little music training in childhood has a great benefit in improving brain functions in adulthood when it comes to listening and the complex processing of sound. The study entitled “A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood” will be featured in the August 22 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Over the last decade, the effect of music on the brain has been a major scientific topic. Northwestern University researchers have now, for the first time, conducted a study to assess the effect after children stop playing a musical instrument after only a few years, which frequently happens during childhood. They discovered that adults who had 1 to 5 years of musical training as a child had better brain responses to complex sounds than their peers with no musical training.

They also discovered that those with musical training during childhood were more effective at pulling out sound signal’s fundamental frequency, i.e. the lowest frequency in sound, which is vital for speech and music perception, and which allows sound to be recognized in complex and noisy auditory environments.

Nina Kraus, the Hugh Knowles Professor of Neurobiology of the Physiology and Communication Sciences at Northwestern, said:

“Thus, musical training as children makes better listeners later in life. Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain. The study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning.”

She continued: “We help address a question on every parent’s mind: ‘Will my child benefit if she plays music for a short while but then quits training?'”

Although many children either have group or private music instruction, there are only few that continue to take formal music classes beyond middle or high school. The majority of neuroscientific studies have concentrated their efforts on rare and exceptional music students who continued to actively practice music throughout college or, even as professional musicians dedicated to music.

Kraus said: “Our research captures a much larger section of the population with implications for educational policy makers and the development of auditory training programs that can generate long-lasting positive outcomes.”

In their new study, the team tested young adults with varying amounts of past musical training by measuring electrical signals from the auditory brainstem in response to eight complex sounds ranging in pitch. Since brain signals are a true representation of the sound signal, the team was able to determine how the nervous system captures key elements of the sound and how these elements might be weakened or strengthened in different people with various degrees of ability and experience.

The team divided 45 adults into three age- and IQ- matched groups depending on their musical instruction history. One group had no musical instruction as children, whilst another group had 1 to 5 years of musical history and the third group who had 6 to 11 years of musical training during childhood. Participants in both musical groups started their music tuition around the age of 9, which is the typical age for in-school musical instruction to begin. Unsurprisingly, the team found that musical training during childhood resulted in a more robust neural processing of sounds during adulthood.

Earlier studies on highly trained musicians and early bilinguals showed enhanced brainstem responses to sound are linked to heightened auditory perception, executive function and auditory communication skills, and Kraus said: “From this earlier research, we infer that a few years of music lessons also confer advantages in how one perceives and attends to sounds in everyday communication situations, such as noisy restaurants or rides on the “L.”

Kraus, whose running theme of research is “your past shapes your present,” continued, saying: “The way you hear sound today is dictated by the experiences with sound you’ve had up until today. This new finding is a clear embodiment of this theme.”

Previous studies by Kraus and her team assessed the affects of bilingual upbringing and long-term music lessons have on the auditory brain and how the brain changes after several weeks of intensive auditory experiences like computerized training.

They are currently examining the effect of socioeconomic hardships on adolescent brain function, and Kraus states: “We hope to use this new finding, in combination with past discoveries, to understand the type of education and remediation strategies, such as music classes and auditory-based training that might be most effective in combating the negative impact of poverty.”

When scientists have understood brain’s capacity to change and how these changes are maintained, they will be able to develop effective and long-lasting auditory-based educational and rehabilitative programs.

Written by Grace Rattue