Everyone listens to music at least now and then. For many of us, music is a casual experience, a moment's entertainment. But for those who practiced in a school orchestra or who play a musical instrument professionally, the musical experience can be something more.

Some of the world's leading experts on music and brain will discuss the latest scientific evidence supporting the benefits of music for the mind at the upcoming meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) in San Antonio, TX.

Here are some of their principal findings:


Does musical training modify the auditory cortex - the part of the brain where the processing of sound takes place - in a measurable way? The answer, based on analysis of the brain's electrical and magnetic signals, is yes.

Laurel Trainor, a scientist at McMaster University in West Hamilton, Ontario and colleagues compared preschool children who had taken music lessons to those who did not. Those with some training showed larger brain responses on a number of sound recognition tests given to the children.

Could one make even larger claims for musical training? As a separate but related question, does training change thinking or cognition in general?

Trainor, who is the director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, again says yes. Even a year or two of music training leads to enhanced levels of memory, attention and executive control in the same sort of tests that monitor electrical and magnetic impulses in the brain.

"We therefore hypothesize that musical training (but not necessarily passive listening to music) affects attention and memory, which provides a mechanism whereby musical training might lead to better learning across a number of domains," says Trainor. The reason for this, she suggests, is that the motor and listening skills needed to play an instrument with other people appear to heavily involve attention, memory, and the ability to inhibit actions. Merely listening passively to music (the "Mozart effect") does not produce the same changes in attention and memory.

The talk "Effects of Musical Training on Brain Development" (4aMU2) by Laurel Trainor is at 9:05 a.m. on Thursday, October 29.

A lay-language summary of the talk is available at: http://www.acoustics.org/press/158th/trainor.htm


Harvard researcher Gottfried Schlaug has also studied the brain and cognitive effects of musical training. He and his colleagues also see a correlation between early-childhood training in music and enhanced motor and auditory skills as well as enhancements in verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. This modification of the brain is depends on the type of training. Singing, for example, is a specialized form of music training and changes the brains of singers in locations that are slighting different from those affected by playing, say, the keyboard or a stringed instrument.

The correlation between music training and language development is even more striking for dyslexic children. Schlaug says the results he and his colleagues have found, "suggest that a music intervention that strengthens the basic auditory music perception skills of children with dyslexia may also remediate some of their language deficits."

Schlaug's main report at the meeting, however, deals not with the brain and cognition so much as with the brain differences between professional singers, occasional singers, and those who are tone deaf - that is, those who can't sing in tune and can't properly differentiate pitches. He reports that tone-deaf individuals often have a reduced or absent arcuate fasciculus (AF), a fiber tract connecting the frontal and temporal lobes in the brain. A reduced or damaged AF has been implicated in people with various acquired language problems such as aphasia but also in children with dyslexia. (Paper 4aMU1, "Singing in the Brain: professional singers, occasional singers, out-of-tune singers")

The talk "Singing in the Brain: Professional Singers, Occasional Singers, and Out-of-Tune Singers" (4aMU1) by Gottfried Schlaug is at 8:35 a.m. on Thursday, October 29. An abstract of the talk is available at: http://asa.aip.org/web2/asa/abstracts/search.oct09/asa478.html


Still more evidence that formal music training strengthens auditory cortex responses comes in a study performed by Antoine Shahin and his colleagues. On average, musical training gives a child the same acoustic responsiveness as someone two to three years older. At the meeting Shahin will refer to his own work and to the studies of others. He cautions that these studies do not necessarily show that musical training leads to enhanced IQ or creativity.

How does the increased responsiveness come about? Shahin, who now works at Ohio State University, says that when listening to sounds over and over, especially music or speech that is harmonic or meaningful, the appropriate neurons get reinforced, responding preferentially to those sounds compared to other sounds. This neural behavior was examined in a study by Shahin and colleagues which looked at the degree of auditory cortex responsiveness to music and non-familiar sounds as children age.

The specific tests Shahin carried out consisted of measuring the time lag between the moment a sound was made and when a population of neurons in the subject's auditory cortex (the part of the brain devoted to processing sound signals) became active. He presented a particular sound to each subject 100 times. If the sound evoked a response after a consistent time lag, it was said to be strongly phase-locked. If, however, the response occurs with varying lag times, then it was less phase-locked. Phase-locking indicates how responsive neurons are to sounds.

Shahin's main findings are that phase-locking to musical sounds grows with age for all frequency bands of the auditory response and that the greatest increase occurs between age 10 and 13. This most likely indicates this as being a sensitive period for music and speech acquisition.

The talk "Development of Auditory Phase-Locked Activity for Music Sounds" (3aMU4) by Anthony Shahin is at 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday, October 28. A lay-language summary of the talk is available at: http://www.acoustics.org/press/158th/shahin.htm


In San Antonio, Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto will address the question "Does musical ability makes you smarter?" Such assessments concerning children are always difficult because other factors, such as parental income and parental education, might play a role. Nevertheless, some findings seem robust. Passive listening to music seems to help you perform certain cognitive tests, at least in the short run. Actual music lessons for kids, however, leads to a longer lasting cognitive success. The effects of musical training on cognition for adults, Schellenberg says, are harder to pin down.

The talk "Musical Abilities and Cognitive Abilities" (3aMU4) by Glenn Schellenberg is at 9:35 a.m. on Thursday, October 29. A lay-language summary of the talk is available at: http://www.acoustics.org/press/158th/schellenberg.htm

Main meeting website: http://asa.aip.org/sanantonio/sanantonio.html
Full meeting program: http://asa.aip.org/sanantonio/program.html
Searchable index: http://asa.aip.org/asasearch.html

Devin Powell
American Institute of Physics